By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Mini-Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Spoilery
It took me a long time to get to a second screening of this film, but I felt it was needed for me… and it was.
The basic problem I have with this version of the story is that it tries to add more nuance than the story from the book can comfortably absorb.
I haven’t read the book, but I did see the earlier filmed version of the material, and that and this film both point pretty clearly to this being a pot boiler of high style and fairly simple ideas. One reason that I think Noomi Rapace’s version of the title character was so intensely embraced was that she didn’t flinch much. She remained a puzzle. And the filmmaker didn’t try to crack the code. Here, Steve Zaillian, adapting the book, is trying to bring us closer. But it’s almost as though for that to work, Fincher had to put his harshness petal to the metal… and that didn’t really happen. Perhaps the single most disturbing image of the film is the murder of a cat, which has been chopped up in some very specific ways.
For instance… I didn’t feel much of a parallel between Mikael being strung up for murder and Lisbeth being tied to the bed for anal rape when watching the first movie. I felt much more intensity from both acts in watching the Niels Arden Oplev version. There are multiple reasons for this, I think, The others I will get into outside of this Spoiler. But one is that Fincher’s visual style now makes the two events more strikingly similar and yet, more sterile. What is the meaning of the reflective events? In one case, Lisbeth has no help on the way and her only option is revenge. In the other, Mikael is saved by Lisbeth. In the former case, Lisbeth doesn’t expect to die. In the latter, Mikael should.
It seems to me that the screenwriter and director of the newer film understood intuitively that there was a connection between these two events. My problem is that after seeing it twice, I don’t know, emotionally, what that connection is.
Another problem for me in this version was Daniel Craig. His performance is excellent. But he’s Daniel Craig and we never forget it. Besides the fact that his Mikael is a much more dominant character in this version of the material, he is also a movie star. And when his life is threatened, I am not fearful, in terms of storytelling, that he is really in harm’s way. And there is a moment in which we are really meant to feel like he could die. I didn’t. Not for a second.
Likewise, Rooney Mara is a very interesting canvas for Fincher. But naked Rooney Mara becomes more like a Playboy photo spread than a connected experience of a character. I’m not sure how that could have been better. Perhaps hiring an unknown who was really unknown. But I have to say, I know Noomi Rapace was very physically exposed in her performance, but lovely as she is, I don’t remember specific shots of her nudity from that film. In this one, I remember very distinctly feeling like Fincher was cutting within a few frames of labia or somewhat fetishizing Mara’s nudity.
For me, one key moment is when Lisbeth is anally raped. We never see her face clearly. To me, watching Rooney Mara’s lovely lithe ass flipping about in the air and she grunts through a gagged mouth is like soft-core kink. Her pain, methinks, would be shown in her eyes. Is she resolved to get through it? Does she really think she can break free (another reflection of what is to come with Mikael being strung up to die)? Has this happened before and is it putting her in an place we, as an audience, have never seen her before? To me, a violation like that is defined, dramatically, by the person’s reaction. The terror of someone about to be shot and thrown in a mass grave is far greater than seeing a corpse thrown in a mass grave. The death part is the same. But only the living can be terrified.
I find Ms. Mara’s performance very hard to judge. The script and direction give us a lot of glimpses past Lisbeth’s hardness. But while I found myself wanting to scream at the writer who suggested that Lisbeth, in this film, is a victim of Hollywood’s sense of movie patriarchy, I saw pretty clearly why this writer was upset when I saw the film a second time around. Lisbeth’s sexuality in this film is all over the place and quickly flips from rape victim to lesbian to sex toy to a middle-aged man, the last of which never quite fits.
I don’t know what Zaillian and Fincher think her sexual motives with the Mikael character are here. But they aren’t clear. This isn’t a “I take what I want” girl, no matter what she says. Even when she takes home a woman for, presumably, pleasurable sex, she seems to have gone out looking for a comfort fuck, not anything remotely fun or intimate. She specifically notes that Mikael doesn’t perform cunnilingus on his girlfriend enough… but instead of training him to make her come, she rides him – without him making any kind of move on her – like a fairly traditional male fantasy of “if you harden it, she will come.”
Thing is, I don’t think that Lisbeth yearning for something that Mikael might give her is ridiculous. But it’s not really in the movie. The Swedish movie is boiler plate. Lisbeth is kind of a caricature. But here, made more human, she doesn’t have enough depth to feel completely real. How much of that is Mara Rooney and how much of that is the intent of the filmmakers? The attempt seems to be Edward Scissorhands as Lisbeth Salander. But unlike Edward, Lisbeth can remove her sharp edges. And she does. And it never quite feels right or fulfilled. It’s not that it couldn’t have been. It’s not that the filmmakers aren’t completely capable of doing amazing things. It is, I think, that they are stuck with the book and the end that would have felt right, I think here, is where she goes in the second book… where, I am told, she goes off to heal. Instead, this film stops with her in a kind of Han Solo stasis… which is not dramatically satisfying, especially after we have felt her changing so much. There is a reason why Han is “frozen” after the second film and not at the end of the first. You can’t cliffhanger like that if you don’t know whether you have fully captured the heart of the audience.
The other thing is, we know, as an audience, that Mikael isn’t a man who could make her happy. He is too weak. He’s cool and smart and principled. But not unlike James Bond, he’s somewhat unknowable and he and we like it like that. If she is ever going to be fully honest with a man or woman, she needs someone who can be the same in return. So we don’t have a big investment in a relationship potentially blooming either. And again, as long as everyone is a cipher and this is a murder mystery with some cool characters, that’s fine. When you ramp it up with Fincher and Zaillian, all of a sudden, it’s all out of alignment.
So I guess that’s my review in a nutshell. Beautifully made. Acting is strong across the board. But making pulp into something more real is very, very hard. It’s a magic trick, not a straight-forward skill. And failure, even by the best, at achieving that, is more likely than not.
I don’t think TGWTDG is a failure. I still think it works as an entertainment. But I wanted more than I had gotten from the very compelling, but very TV film by Niels Arden Oplev. And I got a little less.