Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Even before the addition of sound to film production in 1927, Hollywood always reserved for itself the right to the remake. One of the latest is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). There were several stages of interest in the story, which began with a very popular novel written in Swedish (by Stieg Larsson), which was made into a film in Sweden (by Niels Arden Oplev), that drew international attention. The novel, whose title is Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women, won Sweden's Glass Key Award for the best crime novel of 2006, and found a huge following in Europe and the U.S., among whom - it's safe to assume - were Steven Zaillian and David Fincher.

The American film, despite its international cast and crew, is very Swedish. Most people know how many German and Austrian families have the skeletons of Nazis somewhere in their closets. Not many know how many Swedish families do. Sweden's official neutrality throughout the Second World War required, unlike Switzerland's neutrality, at least tacit collaboration with the Third Reich. Many family businesses got rich on such neutrality.(1) One such family in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Vangers, is left with nothing to sell the world nowadays but fertilizer. The patriarch, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) to help him find his missing grandniece, Harriet (Joely Richardson), who hasn't been seen since her disappearance from the family-owned island forty years before.

This is as much of the film's labyrinthine plot as I need to mention, since the only thing that kept me watching the film to the end (it is 158 minutes long) is Rooney Mara (pictured above), who plays Lisbeth Salander, an investigator with blue-black hair, a large (dragon) tattoo, and several body piercings. We are told that she has had a difficult life. Although most of those difficulties are left to our imaginations, the girl's appearance, a gauntlet that she throws at our feet, tells us some of her story. Her behavior, especially the speed at which she drives her motorcycle (she puts far too much trust, I think, in the slogan "speed kills"), suggest the depth of her unhappiness. Other people, especially men, treat her badly, but she defends herself with style. When some people treat her decently, as Mikael does, she is drawn to them and makes the apparent mistake of lowering her defenses. When, at the end of the film, she is deeply hurt, the forlorn look in her eyes is priceless.

There is an arresting credit sequence at the opening of the film that was made by Blur Studios, featuring music by Trent Reznor, formerly of Nine Inch Nails. It is a computer-generated animation of onyx-like human figures which form and melt into one another to a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song". David Fincher, the film's director, made music videos of some of Trent Reznor's music in the 1990s, and the credit sequence has much in common with them.

Fincher has a taste for brutality. An atmosphere of menace pervades his previous films, Seven and Zodiac, making them both superior thrillers. But what gives The Girl nearly all of its fascination is the character of Lisbeth Salander and her nude eyebrows concealing a multitude of possible sins. Tattoos and body piercings aren't evidence of an experience of - and a taste for - abuse, but they seem to an outsider like efforts to suggest it. The look that I mentioned above in Rooney Mara's eyes as she watches Mikael walking away arm-in-arm with another woman is one of "Here-it-is-again-I-should've-known-better" looks, as she tosses the Christmas gift (with a card expressing her love for Mikael in the pocket) into a waiting dumpster and speeds off into another frigid evening.

Everything else in the film is somewhat perfunctory, including three sex scenes with Lisbeth. Though presumably lesbian, we see her being raped from behind by a despicable lawyer (she pays him back in kind) and twice she jumps on Mikael like he's her motorcycle. What her advances mean to Mikael is anyone's guess, but her feelings for him overshoot their mark.

David Fincher is following a predictable course for a once-talented Hollywood director. The savagery that made Seven and especially Fight Club so brilliant and edgy has cooled down considerably into somewhat perverse poses. What was original a decade or more ago has become formulaic. Rooney Mara makes the film eminently watchable. Otherwise I have to agree with the director of the original Swedish film, Niels Arden Oplev, "Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?"

(1) Kurt Vonnegut opened one of the first SAAB dealerships in Connecticut. He had difficulty selling the cars in 1950s America, and requested the Swedish company refrain from taking credit in their brochures for the manufacture of the Stuka and the Messerschmidt.

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