Tuesday, December 27, 2011

TATTOO REDUX: a review of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

Based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson
Screenplay Written by Steven Zallian
Directed by David Fincher
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

“The time for American audiences to expand their collective cinematic minds is long overdue and I cannot help but to wonder if Hollywood and David Fincher just shouldn’t even bother with the remake. To be fair to all parties involved, I will certainly save any official judgment until December 2011, when this new version has already been scheduled for release. Yet, when we already have a film of such high quality, can’t that just be enough?”

And so, here we are again…

I wrote those opening words of this new review in my July 22, 2010 review of Director Niels Arden Opley’s original Swedish film adaptation of late author Stieg Larsson’s monumental best seller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. At that time, news had been announced that filmmaker David Fincher would create his own American adaptation of the same novel as his follow up to his masterful “The Social Network.” (2010) and as you can clearly see, dear readers, I was not terribly enthusiastic about the project. I have more than stated my case against the plethora of movie remakes, re-boots and re-imaginings here upon this site and do not fear, I will not rehash old grievances. But, I have to say that while I certainly did enter David Fincher’s adaptation with a huge amount of skepticism, I exited as a most surprised, pleased film-goer as Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” not only stands as one of 2011’s strongest adult thrillers, I was excited to see how magnificently Fincher was able to make this adaptation stand on its own firm cinematic feet. If one is to go ahead and remake a film in such close proximity to the already terrific original, then David Fincher confidently and skillfully educates us all in how to accomplish this tricky feat most successfully.

I want to assure you that it is not due to any amount of laziness that I will not recount the fullness of the film’s plot this time. As it is already housed on this site (just ask, and I’ll point you in the right direction), I will simply provide you with a brief overview. Daniel Craig stars as the crusading investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, currently housed within a professional downward spiral as his political magazine “Millennium” faces ruin after Blomkvist’s defeat in a high stakes libel case. Seeking professional redemption, Blomkvist is presented with an intriguing opportunity as he is hired by retired CEO Henrik Vanger (a wonderful Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40 year disappearance of his niece, Harriet.

Blomkvist’s investigation is soon aided by researcher and computer hacker, the lithe, intensely brooding, leather clad and body pierced Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a young woman facing down her own demons as she strives to attain a newfound sense of independence and freedom in a harsh, unforgiving and violent world. The twosome form an unlikely yet powerful partnership as their pursuits lead them into a deep web of family secrets, including past ties to the Nazi party, and the wrath of a serial killer, potentially still on the loose.

My original trepidation with David Fincher’s version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” regardless of his undeniable talents as a filmmaker, was not based on a question of his skill but more about a question of purpose. I could not figure out exactly what David Fincher could do that was not already achieved in the Swedish film. Well, I have to say that my questions of purpose in regards to this American version were extinguished by the spectacular opening credit sequence scored to Trent Reznor and Karen O.’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” Where the Swedish film presented the story as a slow burn, whose fullness of effect arrived for me afterwards, David Fincher’s great sequence functioned as nothing less than an anguished howl. The sequence boldly announced to me that this version would exist as a more visceral, aggressive take on the same story, and for the most part, this new version is as successful as the original and in some ways perhaps even a tad better.

First of all, Fincher’s version is faster paced than the original film, which gives the disturbing material a greater sense of urgency and intensity. As with “The Social Network,” Fincher is aided terrifically by a great screenplay by veteran screenwriter Steven Zallian (who also co-wrote this year’s “Moneyball”) who provides sharp, quick dialogue which does help to force the action to reach and maintain a certain velocity.

Beyond that element, and overall, Fincher’s version is indeed a more stylish affair and therefore, more cinematic than the original film, which often felt to function as a realistic docudrama. With Fincher’s trademark meticulous attention to his visual palate provided by Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, excellent sound design and the disturbing aid from Trent Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross’ film score, which surrounds the experience with a chilly dread filled with eerie wind chimes, bells and assortment of dissonant effects, Fincher plunges us into a world which felt to be more claustrophobic and somehow even more distressing than the already grim original version.

Speaking of the film’s grim atmosphere, there was some question as to whether Fincher’s version, arriving from Hollywood, would be a watered down take for a mainstream audience. IO am here to inform you that any of those fears are completely admonished. While Blomkvist is indeed made to be a bit more virtuous by making him less of a womanizer (although he still carries on his love affair with his married editor, played elegantly by Robin Wright) as well as some tender scenes with his teenage daughter, the story’s themes that contain larger and horrific acts of violence all remain intact. The story’s infamous and grisly rape scene remains as does the film’s even grislier sequence of retribution. David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” like many of his films, exists as a HARD “R” rated motion picture. This is a warning to those of you who may be more sensitive viewers.

In fact, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” works so very well as a David Fincher experience that it could actually work as the third section of an unofficial serial killer trilogy with Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995) as the first part and his epic “Zodiac” (2007) as the second. In fact, all three films share a variety of themes (including biblically themed serial killings plus a procedural and journalistic pursuit of a killer, which grows obsessive to the point of extreme paranoia) which helps the individual works serve as a complete whole. By linking his works together, this new film version is clearly a David Fincher film as it stands nearly as tall as much of his oeuvre. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a natural artistic progression while also serving as a forbidding return to familiar material and themes.

As expected from any film directed by David Fincher, all of the performances are excellent and it was a great pleasure to see Stellan Skarsgard, character actor Steven Berkoff, and Joely Richardson along with the aforementioned Christopher Plummer and Robin Wright, each working in peak form. But, of course, and especially to those of you who have seen the Swedish films, the biggest questions lie in the quality of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara’s performances.

Craig, as expected, is rock solid. With all due respect to Michael Nygard, who wonderfully portrayed Blomkvist in all three of the Swedish films, Daniel Craig seemed to be a perfect fit for any potential American version. While Craig plays the character with a hair more aggressiveness than Nygard, who handled Blomkvist with a more nuanced tone, he carries the weight of a certain beleaguered journalistic weariness perfectly. What’s more, Daniel Craig wisely does not portray Blomkvist as an action hero. I liked how he played upon his age as well, with his ever present reading glasses and moments where he is winded after running. He’s more cinematic but still relatable as a human being.

Of course, all eyes are on Rooney Mara (whom you may remember as the young woman who dumps Mark Zuckerberg at the opening of “The Social Network”) in the title role, especially as Noomi Rapace’s interpretations in the original films are considered (at least by me) to be untouchable. Amazingly, Mara heroically rises to the challenge, and in her own specific way, she owns the role of Lisbeth Salander upon first sight. There is absolutely noting tentative about Mara’s commitment to this role, and nor should there be, as this is Mara’s moment to shine. She goes for it full throttle so much so that she nearly gives Noomi Rapace a run for her money!

As with Daniel Craig, as well as the entire film as a whole, Rooney Mara creates a more aggressive, rage fueled and again, cinematic heft to the character where Rapace’s performance was more realistically tormented and tenacious. In some respects, Mara’s Lisbeth Salander at times appears to be like a character from an adult graphic novel. This is by no means a criticism, as the character does lend herself to existing as a real person as well as the archetype of an avenging angel. I loved how Rooney Mara played Lisbeth as a caged animal, sol to speak. Her violent reactions function s at the speed of a whip crack, when cornered her fury is palpable and when it is time for revenge, her methods are almost robotic in their methodology. Yet, throughout it all, Mara never sacrifices Lisbeth Salander’s humanity, always giving the character our empathy and ultimate rooting interest. It is rare to be an actor or actress’s first starring performance given with such forcefulness, but with this portrayal, Rooney Mara richly deserves all of the acclaim she is receiving and shows that she is indeed an actress to watch closely as she definitely has the goods.

Even with all of this praise, not everything works entirely well. I have to say that I did not care for the sequence where Blomkvist and Lisbeth meet for the first time as it felt to be a tad emotionally false to me. Blomkvist seemed to be too dominant and Lisbeth too submissive considering everything we had seen to this point.

I will also say that despite the overall intensity, there were a few points (notably the section after the climax) where this film did tend to drag, just as it did with the original film. Perhaps that is just the nature of this first installment, especially as I really enjoyed the second and third parts even more than this one.

I also had problems with the film’s ending, which is indeed faithful to the original novel. Somehow, I am remembering the Swedish film’s conclusion resonating with more of an emotional ambivalence that felt to be truthful to everything the characters had experienced, especially towards each other. This new version’s ending seemed to tread a tad too far into…shall we say…romantic heartbreak, a feeling that just didn’t gel well enough with all of the preceding turmoil, despair and violence.

Those quibbles aside, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is another triumph for David Fincher who smartly found the overall purpose in creating a new adaptation of this story. The best thing that I can say about this film is that the new version is not attempting in any way to wipe the original version from viewer’s minds or discourage anyone from seeing it at all. The films are not in competition with each other. In fact, I think the two films work well together as dark twins.

Utilizing a more musical descriptive, first noted by Writer/Director Cameron Crowe in describing the differences between his “Vanilla Sky" (2001), itself a remake of Writer/Director Alejandro Amenabar’s terrific Spanish film “Abre Los Ojos” (1997), I think the two versions of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” work in a very similar way. The Swedish film is a disturbingly haunting folk song where the American version is the industrial rock cover version.

And man, does this film roar!

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