Once more with feeling
David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is less a remake of the 2009 Niels Arden Oplev movie than it is a 'reinterpretation' of the Stieg Larsson books, for better or worse. Have not read the books myself (I know, I know; should step out of the cave I stay in more often), but from what I've seen of the Oplev movie and its sequels, seems to me Larsson is driven more by passion than by any real skill at storytelling, more concerned at following some fixed agenda (a kind of ad hoc campaign against female victimization, with maybe just a whiff of exploitation) than churning out a well-reasoned, well-paced story.
We know of the initial impulse that led Larsson to write his novel--the girl whose assault he had witnessed at the age of fifteen, the intense pity and self-disgust it inspired in him. You get some sense of the emotional impact in the way he writes (or the way Oplev channels Larsson's feelings to the big screen) of the assault on eponymous protagonist Lisbeth Salander--and let's be honest, that scene is one of the big draws of the story, on paper and onscreen. Powerful scene, too, almost as powerful as Salander's subsequent and no less violent response. You have to admire the way Larsson pushes our buttons--we see the girl brutalized, we see her get a bit of her own back. Feminism with a considerable dose of sadism, magnified by a man's adolescent trauma.
My problem with the scene (at least my biggest among many) is that it occurs too early--after something like this you expect the story to ratchet up the intensity, which it never really does: the rest of the picture is a somewhat plodding procedural where Salander and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomvkist slowly and painstakingly piece together the clues leading to a serial killer. The relationship between Salander and her rapist, actually her legal guardian, is sidelined just when it seemed to be gaining momentum; instead of said guardian functioning as the film's putative villain we get another far more vague antagonist (a former Nazi, this being an always-convenient label to hang on someone you want to present as the bad guy). For the rest of the movie you wonder if Salander is planning to pay her rotten legal guardian any more visits, give him any more additional grief; as for the story's main mystery--well, I'm not exactly paying attention, are you?
That's pretty much what the movie boiled down to for me: Oplev's chilly evocation of wintry Sweden, Larsson's erratically effective storytelling, Noomi Rapace's larger-than-life rendition of Salander. Rapace in my book is the best reason to see the movie: her fire-breathing performance takes over the picture like napalm on jungle growth and keeps one watching, no matter how attenuated and overly complex the plotting gets.
Fincher, I suspect, knew he couldn't find anyone who could match Rapace's intensity, and went in a whole other direction. You get a different vibe from Rooney Mara; she's altogether more frail, more delicate--a deliberate choice, I'm guessing, as one is likelier to worry about a heroine so evidently vulnerable than a heroine ready to kick ass. Instead of a flawed, mostly tedious procedural upended by one actor's larger-than-life presence, we have a more balanced effort where all the elements come together in graceful harmony.
That's the official agenda; Fincher's secret agenda, or at least the one I saw (and enjoyed) watching this, is to modulate every element--screenplay, cast, lead performance--so that the directing will shine. Fincher was reportedly given the chance to adapt this film, back when it was a relatively unknown Swedish thriller; now he intends to do the right thing, and if not exactly wipe the memory of Rapace off our collective minds, at least offer an alternate version of what should have happened had he accepted the offer in the first place.
Oplev's film comes across as a bleak view of Sweden by one of its native sons; Fincher's film comes across as no less bleak, but with the unmistakable taint of beauty. The bridge; the falling snow; the opaque, unyielding mansions housing opaque, unyielding people are all there, yet somehow aestheticized. There is a color scheme--gray and white for the wintry outdoors, warm fireplace glow for the indoors and nostalgic past. And yet the scheme can be deceptive--in the aforementioned past a young girl flees from her unknown tormentor; in the cozily lit and heated house (Fincher uses vast panes of glass to keep us aware of the surrounding cold), you hear a random sound and the house-owner is forced to excuse himself, ostensibly to check on some unfinished business...
That unfinished business is of course a secret soundproofed chamber, lit a clinical fluorescent white. Fincher quietly employs his lighting scheme to illustrate one of the film's themes: inhospitable environment besieging snug homes--said homes, in turn, housing hidden corners of chilled corruption.
Against this precisely constructed background Fincher presents his favorite activity: intelligent men and women, indulging their obsessions (the hunt for a serial killer). Fincher does what Oplev couldn't quite manage: he makes the process of piecing together every news article and photo, every interview and archival search, compulsively watchable. He's pulled off this trick before on a larger scale, and that 2007 film happens to be his masterpiece; repeating the trick within the confines of an internationally best-selling story may seem redundant...well, is redundant, but fascinating, nonetheless. Far from Fincher's best work, but in my opinion superior to the Swedish original, and worth watching.
First published in Businessworld, 2.2.12