Thursday, December 22, 2011

Come Not Between the Dragon and Her Tat

That an American adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy was going to happen was probably a foregone conclusion by, oh, January 2009. Mere days before I left on my school trip to London, one of my of my neighbors gave me some money and asked me to buy him a copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire, which had been published in the U.K. but would not be out stateside for several more months. That's enthusiasm, and Hollywood was sure it could translate into big box office. As a money-making project, then, there was no question that the American version would happen; this was not the case when it came to whether it would be worth the time and effort of adapting a series that already was brought to the screen in its original nation not even three years ago. Happily they tapped David Fincher, who with two modern crime thriller classics (Se7en and Zodiac) to his name was probably the best person imaginable for the project. The resulting film is, like the girl of its title, easy to admire, but hard to love.

The plot is labyrinthine, but its premise is simple and engaging enough: publicly disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired under the pretense of writing a biography by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) the aging patriarch and former CEO of one of Sweden's richest family corporations. Operating under the pretense of writing a biography of Vanger, Blomkvist in reality is investigating the disappearance 36 years ago of his great-niece Harriet. The circumstances are such that it could have only been one of the many creepy members of the Vanger clan that live on the family's private island that could have murdered her, making for a very complicated case to untangle. This leads Blomkvist to enlist the services of brilliant and anti-social hacker Lisbeth Salender (Rooney Mara), who prepared a lengthy dosier on him for the Vangers before he was approached.

Being a sprawling murder mystery, the story is most busy, and Fincher wastes no time in getting things going: a quick prologue scene, less than a minute, and then comes an opening credits music video set to the driving rhythms of Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover of "The Immigrant Song," and then we're off. The movie's pacing takes some getting used to, as scenes begin and end only as much as absolutely necessary to get down to the business of conveying new information. Even then it can be very seat-of-the-pants, with characters grasping details quicker than anybody who hasn't read the book could hope to. The film is over two-and-a-half hours long, but it could in all honesty stand to have been a little longer, in order to allow the viewer the chance to catch his breath once in awhile.

A procedural of such length could be perfunctory and grueling, but the two leads do a capable job keeping things interesting. Craig's role is deceptively functional in the way he acts as an audience surrogate when story matters get particularly twisted. At one point he actually interrupts Vanger's parade of family members and their (often severed) ties to one another, with a complaint that he can't keep track of them all. Likewise his fatigue and disgust at a long and detailed list of brutal rapes and murders of women. He's a good anchor, though a late scene of his that has the villain unspooling his evil deeds brings to mind unfortunate James Bond comparisons.

The harder sell is Rooney Mara's Lisbeth. The character is generally understated and dry in her approach to everything, even as her spiky hair and piercings and nonexistent eyebrows scream for attention. Watching her is easy, while seeing inside her is a trickier task, at least initially. The script calls for her to be at times withdrawn, frighteningly vulnerable, deathly stern, sexy, and furiously vengeful, almost always without ever losing her icy coolness. It's a similar type as Ryan Gosling's nameless protagonist in Drive or Hailee Steinfeld's turn as the hyper-intelligent fourteen year-old Mattie Ross in last year's True Grit, but ultimately not quite as aloof and more rounded, and it is to Mara's credit that she can give such a chilly character some qualities to grab onto, particularly at the very end.

A good deal of this development of Lisbeth comes thanks to the film's lurid contents, which include a graphic rape scene and subsequent revenge. This material could easily court controversy, but it's hard to see how the movie could do without it, being an adaptation of a book whose original title was Men Who Hate Women. The rape scene isn't tasteful (what does a tasteful rape scene look like?), but it is deeply unpleasant, as it should be. The film is, I suppose, even-handed as an indictment of misogyny. It's much more successful than, say, Black Swan, in which literally every male was a hateful sexual predator. And with a consensual sex scene later on, and several scenes in which Lisbeth walks around an apartment or hotel room in her underwear, it manages to show a healthy, sexual side of Lisbeth's personality without feeling at all exploitative.

Still and all, Lisbeth can be awfully off-putting, and so it is with the film that houses her. Its blizzarding Swedish snowscapes and the dingy whitewashed guesthouse Blomkvist stays in are only occasionally relieved by rich-colored summertime flashback scenes. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, has more of the drones and jangly piano chords that they used in The Social Network, but without the bouncy electronica to offset it. Finally the rapid-fire pacing makes some of the film's later tender moments a harder sell and mostly botches a denouement--two of them, really--that is bursting with incident and yet feels like an afterthought to the concluded main action. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is handsomely put together and never boring, but I stress again that even at its already extensive length it needs more room to breathe. It is if being in those aforementioned winter vistas, David Fincher seems to have felt he has to keep things moving to stay alive.

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