Friday, 6 January 2012

Movie Review - 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' (2011)

Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was well liked, but it wasn't without it's problems, some easier to overcome than others.  For one, the praise heaped on the Lisbeth character was somewhat befuddling. The eccentric and contrasting hacker described by fans of the book was nowhere to be seen in the film. Instead of a tough yet vulnerable twenty something, we got a sinewy and butch thirty something. Instead of savant-like hacking genius, we were given anger and computer literacy. Yes, Noomi Rapace delivered a commanding performance, but the Lisbeth on screen could surely not have been the Lisbeth envisaged by Stieg Larsson, the girl who captured the whole world's attention.

When an American film version was announced, my reaction was less cautious than most, since it was to be directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network), one of the very best directors working today. In fact, the first long post on this blog was an anticipation builder for the film. This morning I finally had the opportunity to see what Fincher could do with the material. In a nutshell, it was awesome. Hit the jump for my review.

Regurgitating the plot of a film in a review seems like a waste of energy at the best of times, let alone for this film, since almost every person has either read the book, seen the Swedish version or heard the story recited in some form or another. Briefly then, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is about Mikael Blomkvist, an investigating journalist still in hot water over an allegedly false exposé, who is recruited by Henrik Vanger (the patriarch of an ultra-wealthy Swedish industrialist family) to help solve the mystery of his niece who disappeared over 40 years ago. Blomkvist uncovers more than expected and hires Lisbeth Salander, an eccentric, genius computer hacker with a history of abuse to assist him on his journey into the anti-semitic, misogynistic, serial-murdering Swedish underbelly, personified by the Vanger clan.

Not being able to decide what sort of thriller it is, the plot is actually all over the place. Various subgenres make an appearance: one minute it's a missing person mystery, the next it's a whodunnit (with a good dose of corporate conspiracy suspense in the background), and before you know it you're watching a serial killer movie that looks like it could head into Hostel territory. Whereas this shambles was a weakness in the original version, a viewer who knows the story and has seen the original can forget about the source material and fully appreciate the master craftsmen at work. So, by some bizarre twist of logic, the weakness of the source material helps this as a film because it lets you appreciate the cinematic aspects of the story. And there is nobody better to help you on your way than David Fincher and his regular collaborators Jeff Cronenweth (cinematographer), Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (editors) and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (original score).

Critics of the film have blamed it for not offering anything new other than a vehicle for David Fincher's directing skills. I couldn't disagree more. First, how new can it be without straying completely from the book? Second, it was clear from the moment the opening titles commenced that we were in for something different, and special. They were psychotic, psychedelic and atmospheric in a manner achievable only by combining Fincher's music video experience with the musical genius of Reznor, Ross, Karen-O and Led Zeppelin. If critics want something completely different, go watch another movie.

Okay, the film is the ideal showcase for Fincher's directing chops, but the result went further than just a technical improvement. It was colder, darker and more brutal, explicit and suspenseful, resulting in a far superior all round cinematic experience. In short, I felt something after watching this film that I did not feel after the Swedish version. And that is before even mentioning Rooney Mara. She really did grab the bull by the horns and pulled off one of the most fearless performances in recent memory. Her Lisbeth operates with ruthless efficiency (even when being mugged) and possesses unparallelled technical proficiency, but yet she exudes vulnerability that is almost palpable, but never excessive. Surely this was the Lisbeth originally envisaged by Stieg Larsson? She was absolutely perfect, not only in filling Rapace's boots, but in sparking that strange and unique chemistry with Craig's Mikael Blomkvist that grabbed the world's attention and made the book the bestseller it was. Absent from the Swedish film, it was that relationship which attracted David Fincher to this version in the first place. In a recent interview with Firstshowing, Fincher said (about the relationship and how it made him want to do this movie): "I hadn't seen this one. I thought she, in conjunction with him, was a team that was unlike anything that I was prepared for." Well, he succeeded, and scriptwriter Steve Zaillan's treatment of this aspect of the story may be what earns him yet another Oscar nomination at the end of this month.

The remaining characters were carefully and perfectly selected as well. It's almost as if Fincher and his crew studied the faults of the previous film and specifically aimed to eliminate them. I know I am drawing many comparisons to the Swedish version, and that I should be reviewing this as a standalone film, but when the original is a mere 3 years old and so fresh in your mind, it's impossible not to. Besides, I for one was mildly disappointed by the original and was greatly relieved to see all the improvements brought about by this version. However, those who loved the original may not be as enthusiastic as I am. Back to the casting though. Daniel Craig found just the right balance for Mikael Blomkvist: not James Bond, but not a creepy old dude who would never attract the sexual advances of a beautiful 23 year old woman either. His character needed to form the other half of the all important abovementioned relationship, and he did it with ease. Two others that stood out were Yorick van Wageningen as Bjurman, Lisbeth's rapist guardian; and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger. Van Wageningen is not creepy looking at all. In fact, he is a bit of a teddy bear. Which makes him all the more terrible when he springs into action. And Skarsgård, an expert at playing slyly intelligent characters, did a brilliant job as always. At the end of the day though, all the kudos really should go to Rooney Mara.

The bottom line is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a triumph of cinematic craftsmanship, from the opening titles to the poignant closing shot. Yes, it is let down a little by the weakness of the story, but for some bizarre reason I feel that this almost adds to the enjoyment of the film as a whole. Get thee to a cinema now! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo opened in the USA on 21 December 2011, and in South Africa today (6 January 2012).

8.5 out of 10

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