EVEN ROONEY MARA’S PERFORMANCE CAN’T SAVE “DRAGON TATTOO”
Most critics are going to like – if not love – David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” They will have their credible reasons, as there is a lot to appreciate. Where I am going to differ with them is how I judge and prioritize the merits of a story. For me, it all comes down to whether or not that story is able to keep me continuously invested through well-crafted pacing that leaves me satisfied at the end. This film and this story doesn’t give me any of those qualities. Now I’ve read Stieg Larsson’s novels and seen their Swedish adaptations. My problems for the first installment of the trilogy remains the same, as none were fixed in this adaptation. I was interested only in random spurts rather than ever feeling continuously invested. Instead of enjoying myself, I can only use the word “wading” to describe how I felt in getting through the story. Any worthwhile scenes are deluded by a convoluted nature and atrocious lack of pacing. Most importantly, the mystery’s “finale” is anticlimactic and leaves us without any genuine payoff or satisfying conclusion. It merely ends with a clink instead of a boom. Ultimately, as much as I hate to say it, what we get is part unwatchable gruesome and part bland indifference. Neither of which are traits I’d have expected from Fincher.
They story is a concurrent tale of two people’s journeys into the other one’s life. The first is Mikhail Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist who is given a change to fix his reputation when a wealthy recluse (Christopher Plummer) hires him to come to a private island and investigate a murder that occurred 40 years previously – and where the murderer is someone still living on the island. The second is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a brilliant asocial surveillance researcher with a photographic memory who is dealing with the sexual sadism of her state guardian while finding herself interested in the case Blomkvist is working on. Their paths cross when they join forces to solve the case before the killer gets to them first.
Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a film of shocking extremes. Extremes of sexuality. Extremes of cruelty. Extremes of uncomfortable topics. “Men Who Hate Women” was the original title for the Swedish novel, and it is especially appropriate. The misogynistic nature of the perverted sexual violence inflicted on the women in the story does its absolute best to unravel and skewer every single taboo American cinema still has, and, boy, does it succeed. I can name at least half a dozen moments the likes of which I’ve never seen before in a mainstream American film. This is as close to NC-17 as R can possibly get.
I can’t imagine many other American filmmakers getting away with material like this, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. There is a fine line between tasteful/artistic depravity and gratuitous depravity, and – while I can see why certain scenes are included – I just can’t see why we need to see quite so much of something so horrible, from animal mutilation to forced sodomy. The camera lingers longer than it should on these scenes. This film is practically unrelenting in its brutality and you almost have no choice but to look away. Any scandalous aspect of the book is uncut and is made as visually horrifying as possible. Whether that’s a positive or a negative is up to you. For me, I appreciate the ambition but I can’t help but feel disgust for what I am seeing. For American cinema, this is bold and ambitious but feels unmerited, even with an artistic standpoint. No matter how much it shows me about a character, I don’t need to see a rape scene frame by frame.
The unraveling of the story – which I’ve already said I dislike – is an additional problem, as this version seems a bit worse in how murky and just plain confusing it is. Now I know the plot from reading the book. I know what I’m seeing and what happens. Or at least, I know what I’m supposed to be seeing. But for newcomers, I can’t imagine how they could possibly follow the jumps in logic the film constantly takes. I like complicated films that don’t cater to audiences, but this is ridiculous. Yeah, we get the ending well enough when faces are shown and motives are explained, but if we don’t get the names and understand the precise steps of the investigation, the climax means next to nothing because we weren’t able to follow the plot’s impenetrable maze.
But even so, Fincher does present an odd frenetic aura of darkness that pervades the entire film and increases the growing dread we know it fast approaching. This, I did enjoy. Say what I will, Fincher does know how to tell a dark tale about the depravity of the human soul. Sadly, atmosphere isn’t enough to elevate uneven material, which switches from a break-neck speed to excruciatingly dreary. Add this to how surprisingly pedestrian the directorial style is.
The story’s one major claim to fame – the reason that separates it from all the other action mysteries like it – is its female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. She elevates the inferior mystery and pacing with her inherent brilliance and stark attraction. From the guarded-yet-rebellious way she presents herself to the reigned ferocity that steams behind her eyes, Lisbeth is one of the greatest female characters in recent times.
It is always an extremely special experience to watch great actors play great characters. We get that experience with Rooney Mara. With the eyeful solace of a younger Tilda Swinton, Mara is a revelation as Lisbeth. Her sharp responses and eerie intelligence that always promise a wrathful violence just waiting to get out fit the character perfectly, where every single day is a struggle. We can tell that this is a girl who could easily have become a serial killer if she had taken one step in another direction. She has the mentality and the narrow focus. Instead, she channels it for better purposes. That’s just one of the reasons she’s so interesting. We rarely get strong female characters like this and it is a joy in how great of one we get here. This is an award-worthy actress acting her heart out in an awards-worthy role.
Daniel Craig, unfortunately, suffers from unideal casting. I always pictured Sean Penn or Aaron Eckhart fulfilling all the qualities of Mikhail Blomkvist as the normal guy who loves a good chase but gets way over his head. We need to feel that this guy has no idea how to deal with this. Craig, however, is far too emotionally unavailable or – for lack of a better term – James Bond-like to really fit into Blomkvist’s shoes. He has one face – bold and unfazed. He’s too comfortable. This is not the kind of character Blomkvist is.
In the end, there is only so much one can do with an adaptation like this. As I didn’t find much in the novel that I found particularly memorable outside of the shocking brutality and the outstanding characterization and story arc of Lisbeth Salander, I was never going to love this film. The story just doesn’t work for me. In this way, the film is too much of an adaptation.
I truly held a deep hope that director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zallian would fix the inherent pacing problems of the story, as both are masters at fascinating pacing. Just look at Fincher’s “Panic Room” and “Se7en” or Zallian’s “Schindler’s List” and “Gangs of New York.” But somehow, I feel like they dropped the ball and the result is a complete lack of coherent pacing and storytelling. It is almost exactly as it was in the novel and in the Swedish film. No more. No less.
Now if you, unlike me, like the story of the novel and the Swedish film counterpart and want to see it given an American turn, you won’t be disappointed. In regards to film-making itself, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is pretty slick. It is a very good adaptation to the novel and a better film in general than the Swedish one is. It has better actors (Mara especially) and a better ominous mood to it. But nothing, a least for me, can save it from the woeful pacing inherent in the story, the anticlimactic ending, the befuddled plotting and names, and the unsatisfying nature of the mystery, the investigation, and the characters arcs. Those are deal-breaking qualities for me, no matter how much I adore Rooney Mara’s Oscar-worthy performance or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s musical score. The characters and their personal struggles are worth a movie, and a great one at that. What we get is a semi-good film with maybe two great scenes where everything else is worthless filler or gratuitous shock. We see glimpses of genius, but by the end those glimpses have disappeared in disappointment.