Directed by David Fincher
Released in 2011
David Fincher’s films center not around story but a mood. An off, hopeless, gnarly mood that about represents where Travis Bickle’s head would be in the 21st century. There are no clean bathrooms in these movies. Longtime collaborator, cinematographer Jeff Cronenwoth, captures the visual aesthetic of this bleakness with jet-black color saturation and disturbing digital clarity. The two could frame a mid-July, Florida sun and make you doubt its warmth. On the other side lies the audio, where sound editors and mixers - led by Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten, respectively - sometimes muddle the dialogue yet crank up the ambience to build suspense. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scored The Social Network and return here for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to embarrass all directors who did not approach these two sooner. They channel paranoia and betrayal through this draining din that may as well resonate from the recesses of a aluminum honeycomb, with atonal keyboard strokes over it all.
I say all this to commend both Fincher and these individual artists who collaborate every time to realize these troubled visions. But I also want to emphasize that all these people are not here to tell a story as much as develop this mood and strip raw its meditators’ humanity, or complete lack thereof. The story they tell here has been told twice before, with Stieg Larsson’s original novel and the 2009 Swedish film adaptation hits already. They all return, Fincher leading it all, for more than an American touchup.
Larsson’s original story remains mesmerizing and incredibly gripping, no doubt. I had not experienced the story in any complete form yet so the Steven Zaillian-adapted plot provided its own wonder (thus, this review has no prior bias, e.g. my laziness brings objectivity). If Agatha Christie wrote for the heroin chic era and admired the BTK Killer over Professor Moriarty, the resulting potboiler would end up close to this.
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been hired by a retired mogul, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his daughter almost 40 years ago. Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is good at his job, but not great, shown by his loss in a high-profile libel case against a businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerström. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), however, is great and nearly supernatural in her computer hacking abilities (not unlike last year’s Fincher subject, Mark Zuckerberg), if brought back down to earth by some severe social problems (ditto the Zuck). The two join - through some awkward serendipity, of course - to pin down who they believe is a serial killer of women, one of Se7en-level brutality.
Lisbeth directs all of her attention to the case on the premise alone, for sexual violence is tied to her own past. If her bisexuality did not already set her apart, her black leather jackets, grotesque piercings and aversion to words certainly do. Her new legal guardian exchanges sadistic rape for the money she needs, and the revenge she takes is almost so sick we feel bad for the scum. Almost. An early scene where a thug swipes her laptop in a train station, only for her to viciously fight back, throws the weak woman stereotype out of the window. Not the crazy woman one, though, for she unleashes a primal roar in the goon’s face that the sound editors wisely masked with ambient train squeals. This freight train will flatten you.
Blomkvist occupies the other side of the coin. It is precisely his slaving to manners that nearly kills him, as he comes face to face with the bad guy yet will not decline a drink in his isolated, dark house. “It's funny that people have a greater fear of offending others than the fear of pain,” the villain sneers, a critique of the genre’s tropes that lead to the audience screaming at the screen, “Don’t go in there!!”
Daniel Craig as Blomkvist signals a shift in character, one not in control of the situation though more eager than ever to be so. For once, Craig appears weaker than both his enemy and accomplice, and he handles the demotion in stride. The dark palette to the shots even makes that chest that once drove Internet message boards wild only above average.
Though that role does not scream Oscar in any way, Mara’s Lisbeth Salander does through silence. But we all saw her in the opening sequence of The Social Network as Zuckerberg’s offended girlfriend, and she was so flustered and innocent there. What happened between then and now? The contrast makes her transformation that much more impressive. For such a pretty, delicate-looking girl, her nude scenes bare a rugged, beaten and very sexed though not necessarily sexy canvas. The strange relationship she develops with Blomkvist uncovers real feelings, with hard stares of affection rather than contempt. In a day where stars only grace magazine covers with an army of Photoshop airbrushers, it takes dare and real talent to own a role so punk and unglamorous and find a wounded heart beneath it all.
Christopher Plummer deserves recognition this year, for he won accolades in Beginners and proves again to show talent, or dash, have no boundary. First of all, look at the man (to your right), and tell me you would want to look any other way at 82 years young. Bravo, sir. But nonetheless, he continues to expose his underrated talents that should soon not go Oscar-less. Actors cry all the time in the movies, but only the best can make you believe it. His character breaks down in one, quick shot with such a rush of feeling that it reminded me acting can not only shock but swoon, even amongst such venomous company.
That Plummer’s reaction was cut so abruptly contributed to the shot’s punch, letting the emotion exit the screen and finish in the viewer’s imagination. Film editing, the “invisible art” as it is justly called, can go through the motions or turn a decent film exceptional. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall achieve the latter, cutting a movie that runs a troublesome 158 minutes into a breeze without filler. They throw in those graphic match cuts - i.e. someone closes a window; cut to someone closing a door - but the mastery barrels forward in any of the montages. Investigative work flies by as both Lisbeth and Mikael shuffle through old newspapers and find clues in zoomed photos while Trent and Atticus’ score builds and falls. They work apart from each other as per Lisbeth’s isolated demeanor yet, in two sequences, one of them falls into mortal peril while the other puts together the pieces to save them. Their dependency on each other never finds words but the cross-cutting of images, even when they are a train ride apart, ties that bond.
I now recall an earlier 2011 film, The Green Hornet, directed by Michel Gondry. The film was mediocre at best, but featured this cool sequence where the camera followed an assassin only for the screen to split in two and follow two new assassins simultaneously, and then four, eight and so on. The montage provided fleeting fun, but aside unmemorable scenes on either side it stood out as rather outstanding in this otherwise forgettable movie. Gondry and Fincher share a similar lineage, as two of the three famous 90s music video directors who later hit it big in Hollywood (the third being Spike Jonze).
Fincher does not use these “showstoppers.” Instead, he creates a seamless stream of image, sound and music where every piece, at every frame, holds purpose, but conviction only when viewed alongside its appendages. A scene of Mikael nestling with a cat feels as critical to his character as when someone strangles him with a plastic bag over his head. Take a second and picture that latter image. It is as disturbing as you cannot dare to imagine. For while Fincher cannot ultimately escape the pulp that is Larsson’s text, the often ludicrous story keeps us afloat among such unremitting brutality. Otherwise, we might just sink into that starless, unsmiling mood.
4.5 Stars Out of 5