Wednesday, December 21, 2011

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

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is to sexism what Kathryn Stockett's The Help is to racism. Both work less as attempts to grapple with serious topics than shallow wish-fulfillment fantasies by those unaffected by the subject matter. For Stockett, a white woman, it was the harshness of the Jim Crow era as catalogued by an author stand-in so emphatically not racist that black people not only trust her but risk their lives to secure her book deal. For Larsson, who helplessly witnessed a gang rape as a teenager, it is Sweden's startling patterns of sexual abuse as catalogued by an author stand-in so emphatically not sexist that the avenging fury of violated Woman herself not only trusts him but screws him. Furthermore, as it was written while Larsson was in hiding over his reporting, the book also addresses his longstanding issues with toothless investigative journalism and Sweden's lingering extreme-right element.

Yet David Fincher's adaptation is not really about any of those things. Tossing out Larsson's self-righteousness entirely, the film also reduces protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's almost comically active sex life—it's amusing that the novel's version of Blomkvist gets laid as much as James Bond, and he's played here by the man himself, Daniel Craig. But Fincher even hacks out the questionable feminist empowerment of Lisbeth Salander, presenting her violence with a coldness that robs her vengeance of its bloodlust. Instead, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo acts as a retroactive bridge between several of Fincher's films: it links the religion-tinged carnage of Se7en with the analytical anti-whodunit of Zodiac, as well as that film's painstakingly slow-going, interpersonal analog with The Social Network's ultra-fast, beyond-humanity digital. If Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about the late author's preoccupations, then Fincher's is about his own.

This is evident from the opening credits, which recall the playfully dark titles of Se7en. A music video montage set to Trent Reznor's and Karen O's industrial version of "Immigrant Song," the blackened, fragmentary images not merely offering visual cues to the characters and plot (Lisbeth's various tattoos come to life, and misogynistic violence comes through with an image of a fist shattering a woman's face like a vase) but themes as well. USB cables swirl out like tentacles that ensnare the male and female figures, smashing them together, penetrating them, and suffocating them. The story concerns a decades-old murder that long preceded the digital age, but the constricting credits montage suggests that, now, the problem is not that a murder will go unsolved but that the tools that make such crimes nearly impossible to escape may kill us all.

Despite a healthy running time of 160 minutes, Fincher and writer Steve Zaillian streamline a great deal of the book's diversions. What they don't reduce is the dialogue. Everyone talks, talks, talks in this movie from the start to the stop, with hardly any shots letting Fincher's elegant direction and Jeff Cronenworth's crystal clear, hyperreal cinematography speak for themselves. Yet there's something about the staging of this endless speech that avoids mere exposition, or avoids the manner in which exposition typically operates. As with Zodiac, which obsessed over the solution to its case over the motive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does not care for the reasons for any given situation. We never learn why Blomkvist cared so much about the story that got him convicted of libel at the start, why the perpetrator behind the 40-year-old mystery Blomkvist is hired to solve truly does what he does, nor even why Lisbeth is so maladjusted. Even when Fincher and Zaillian toss out some kind of motive, it is but half of the equation—a whispered hint of the killer's childhood sexual brainwashing or Lisbeth's muttered admission of the action that got her placed under the care of the state—that avoids full explanation not out of ambiguity but indifference. It is enough merely to know what happened, especially as the question of Harriet Vanger's disappearance is so strange that the what is more interesting, more convoluted, and more surreal than the banal horrors that prompted it.

Fincher's direction matches this emotionally removed attention to detail, and despite the darkness of the film (literal and figurative), the director hasn't been this playful in some time. Insert close-ups tell the audience what each character is seeing without resorting to POV shots, adding to the info dump that Ignatiy Vishnevetsky so brilliantly educed in his own essay on the film. Vishnevetsky likewise sees Fincher's bypass of the "whys" for the "hows," but he goes one step further in describing how Fincher "foregrounds everything," constantly adding new data to the digital image. Montages intricately document every step of a sequence, whether is Lisbeth cooking Ramen or Mikael assembling a makeshift, even cinematic flipbook of static photographs that the camera moves in close to document in almost Godardian fashion.

This approach, of course, is embodied in Lisbeth, whose photographic memory, mathematical ability and hacking skills link her to The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg (and, to a lesser extent, the similarly obsessive and bright Robert Graysmith in Zodiac) as much as the heavily implied Aspberger's syndrome that afflicts both. Rooney Mara, who stole Fincher's previous film in its first five minutes and absconded with it when she left the frame, makes it obvious why the director fought to cast her in this role. Like Zuckerberg, Lisbeth has everything figured out but people, which she places under her area of understanding by hacking into their personal devices and creating files of every action and transaction of their lives. Unable to read social cues and communication, she instead makes readable documents of people. In this way, she simplifies them, though I doubt even she could reduce herself to a brief synopsis.

Mara plays Lisbeth with the perfect mixture of frail vulnerability and uncontrollable rage. Nursing some unspoken hang-up, Lisbeth always averts her eyes in conversation, cagey and perpetually uncomfortable. Yet when she does raise her head, Mara's doe eyes blaze with such ferocity that even those who win her trust have reason to be afraid. Unlike Noomi Rapace's muscular frame, which suggested the ability to fight back, Mara's lithe musculature emphasizes the physical weakness that places Lisbeth in constant jeopardy, highlighted in her dealings with a sadistic, rapacious guardian, by far the film's most stomach-twisting moments. Her muffled shrieks of fear and anguish as he rapes her made me shake so badly I dropped my notebook, but that same delicacy gives her shows of strength and merciless payback their surprise, and I was nearly as troubled by her getting even with the disgusting Bjurman. The development of a sexual relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael in the book smacks of the aforementioned wish-fulfillment, but here Mara plays Lisbeth's sudden attraction with pure aggression and dominance, an assertion of strength and control to outpace her uncertain, confused feelings. It's still an incurable flaw held over from the novel, but Mara removes the ridiculous motivations Larsson put into the character's head, making her romance all the more impulsive and yet another event to be catalogued.

Pale and detached, Mara looks like death, especially with her bleached eyebrows, which make her face more skull-like and recall the hikimayu style as used in Japanese cinema, where it creates unsettling visages of demons and ghosts. God knows what's going on behind those eyes of hers; if the film is like Mikael, not trying to pry into anyone's subconscious, Mara's Lisbeth is so innately defensive that she still keeps her guard up just in case Fincher gets the urge to try her.

Where the book used the pair's discrepancies of technical know-how as a means of highlighting the ethical gap between Mikael's old-school journalist and Lisbeth's unrepentant hacking, Fincher simply focuses on the technological gap itself. Mikael, no stranger to poring over old documents and conducting interviews, does the legwork, talking to reluctant, even hostile, sources and using intuition to piece together clues into impressive new breakthroughs. But Lisbeth can perform equally admirable work in the time it takes for Google to return however many thousand results for a search term. In minutes, she progresses a case farther than it's ever gotten in 40 years. Fincher characterizes them by their fluidity in laptop usage: Lisbeth can clear an entire screen of snooping in a few keystrokes, while Mikael has to bumble around for agonizing seconds just trying to maximize the screen. In the book, Mikael's final-act acceptance of Lisbeth's illegally obtained files serves only to victoriously resolve an unnecessary bookend plot. Fincher, on the other hand, depicts Mikael's lapse of ethics for what it really is: a sign of the old way dying out after the completion of one last analog case, and a total ceding of authority to the new digital way of being. The director adds in cheeky reminders of our technologically driven lives: early on, everyone in the frame reaches for his cell phone when one rings, all of them instinctively ready to answer a call as if grabbing a gun for self-defense. On the frozen-over island where Mikael investigates Harriet Vanger's cold case, he spends much of his time, like the director in The Wind Will Carry Us, simply searching for reception, and it is that lack of signal, as opposed to the now-unthinkable prospect of people simply turning off their phones as in the novel, that leads to a the film's climactic, suspenseful showdown with the villain.

The deflation of Mikael's triumph goes hand in hand with the removal of visceral pleasure from any of the film's resolutions. Whether it's Lisbeth dealing a much-deserved but grisly comeuppance to Bjurman or the solving of the film's driving anti-mystery and subsequent confrontation with a killer (himself laughably normal and unremarkable, even putting on Enya to hang and gut a victim), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo never ruminates on its actions. Everything is just more info to be logged and uploaded, objectively recorded with detached but expertly crafted direction by Fincher. Earlier I mentioned Godard, and the use of store-bought surveillance cameras and Web searches recalled Film Socialisme in the presentation of a world without secrets, where everything is documented and privacy is but a distant memory. Well, there is still one secret in this film, which might explain why the discovery of a serial rapist/murder almost comes with a sense of nostalgic wistfulness and regret.


  1. I'll disregard your logo and say your opinion is most certainly wanted. Nice site you have here.

    Albeit I don't agree with your review here.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. He might have given unnaturally overhyped Se7en and "Social Network"...But this one s truly amazing....
    Definitely,a collector's item

  3. I couldn't agree more with your review, thank you for saying it! The American version of this movie is a disgrace to women. The fact that they make her out to be crazy, and vulnerable is disgusting. Not to mention all the shameless product placement that litters the screen.

  4. Have yet to see the US version. Good review. However, despite the description of Fincher's emotional removal, your review comes across as a big thumbs up for all of Fincher's newly bolted on themes. Thus, now I'll have to read the book before watching this version.

  5. Lisabeth Salamander is not made out to be crazy. She is labeled crazy by society. The movie made this clear in a scene between Mara and Craig.