Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) Review

Rooney Mara stars as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)...

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the film's third act...

Blaring over Dragon Tattoo's opening credits, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' glitchy re-working of Immigrant Song, vocalized in banshee-like howls by Yeah Yeah Yeah's frontwoman Karen O, acts as bold statement of intent for director David Fincher. Its lyrics (We come from the land of the ice and snow / from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow) may complement the setting of Stieg Larsson's source novel, published in English in 2008, but it also serves another, greater purpose. It announces Fincher, the celebrated US auteur, as a foreigner in the bleak, glacial Sweden of goth hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). We are your overlords, screams another lyric. The director's steady eye establishes an alien perspective, and his displacement in the landscape allows for the best take on Dragon Tattoo yet.

At first glance Fincher appears odd directorial casting, for most of his films - with the exceptions of Panic Room (2003) and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) - are about men in the company of men. Fight Club (1999) is about unchecked male aggression; libido and machismo swapping spit and fists, exuding from every frame the pungent scent of blood and cologne. Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) are about the rituals of male obsession, as cop and killer dance around each other in fear and admiration. The Game (1997) is to some degree about male fantasy, and The Social Network (2010) functions as a cinematic essay on man's contagious belligerence - his pride and greed. Alien³ (1992) is an oddity, revolving around a strong-willed heroine trapped in a warped, religious male sect. Larsson's source - junk fiction of the highest order - is essentially a feminist vigilante tale, given greater dramatic focus for being juxtaposed with Mikael Blomkvist's (Daniel Craig) investigation into a four-decade-old missing persons case. The latter story Fincher seems perfectly suited for, but outside of Fight Club's Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) and Panic Room's Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), can anyone remember a single one of his female characters who didn't end up with their head in a box?

For those unaware, this is the second adaptation of Dragon Tattoo in as many years, with Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish language version being released in 2009. Many have criticized Fincher - one of the most original filmmakers of his generation - for essentially remaking a still-warm sacred cow, but his vision of Larsson's world is an entirely different beast to the much overrated original. Ironically, given that Oplev's series starter was the only entry in that trilogy not conceived for television, his style feels incredibly small-screen, with lackluster visuals and blocky staging rendering the film deeply uninteresting on an aesthetic level. Fincher, however, is a master technician, and here he employs lighting, sound design and editing to draw his audience deeper into the mystery of Larsson's world (after watching two adaptations I now realise that a bulk of my problems stem from the story itself, which is contrived and overly complex). From that startling opening credits sequence right down to the low-key ending, Fincher has created a masterpiece of tone and feeling, sustaining my interest in this inherently flawed tale through his refined cinematic senses.

Consider, for example, the scene where Harriet's (Moa Garpendal) killer is finally revealed. Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), after a delectably drawn-out I-know-you-know sequence, traps Mikael in his dungeon, winching him up for a bout of torture (the scene has an oddly homoerotic undertone, as Martin reaches for Mikael's crotch before retreating his hand, commenting "I've never done a man before"; to me insinuating sexual violation of his female victims, which he is also willing to carry out here). Instead - halfway between frustration and tempered desire - he puts a plastic bag over Mikael's head, and Fincher focuses on the victim's heavy, drawn-out breathing. There's something fetishistic about this scene - the struggle of the victim and the pleasure of the aggressor, who seems to get off on inflicting pain. To think that he's not the Nazi in the family. Fincher has already excelled Oplev in this scene through the startling use of close-ups and deep focus photography (Jeff Cronenweth - the genius DP behind Fight Club and The Social Network - lenses the film brilliantly), but then he serves up a distinctly Finchian outré. Martin walks, calmly, over to his pristine reel-to-reel player, flicks a switch, and out gently creep the opening strings of Enya's 'Orinoco Flow'. Suddenly a chill ran down my spine. Not since the use of 'Goodbye Horses' in Demme's Silence Of The Lambs (1991) has a cut of popular music been perverted so beautifully, and the scene becomes an instant classic.

The film's talking point, however, was always destined to be Rooney Mara, taking on the role which Noomi Rapace so confidently made her own in Oplev's original. Mara - an actress I'd previously considered of limited range - excels here, fully submersing herself into the character of Salander, whose myriad complexities run further off the page than on it (Steve Zaillian's screenplay is over-expository, but the source demands such treatment). The actress - mohawked, pierced and donning a pitch-perfect Swedish accent - is entirely convincing in the role, and while she can't muster the same strength as Rapace's heroine (who could confidently kick Tyler Durden's ass) we do buy into her loneliness, which is essential in believing the relationship she forms with Mikael. In all honesty, it's hard to call which performance is the better, as they both find different - and equally important - shades to the character. Craig also puts in a commanding turn as the crusading journo Mikael, finding deeper emotional truth in the character than the still-solid Michael Nyqvist. Elsewhere there are sturdy supporting turns by Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and Steven Berkoff, all of whom equal or outweigh their Swedish counterparts. Overall Fincher's Dragon Tattoo emerges as bold, adult entertainment of a caliber the cinema has been sorely missing this year - outside of Tomas Alfredson's superior Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - and I eagerly await its sequels...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is in cinemas now.

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