Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) A Film by Niels Arden Oplev

What to film and what not to film: when faced with a novel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's size and narrative complication, director Niels Arden Oplev can't quite navigate this fundamental question. What he does do is find himself in some confusing middle zone between fully fleshed-out and pared down, in which he picks from a hat one narrative thread to zero in on but doesn't quite neglect all the others, instead keeping them there as thin, sensationalized window dressing. As oddly sluggish and convoluted as modern mystery cinema gets, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an icky movie seemingly about corporate corruption and the irresolvable determinacy of history, but it's so sloppily arranged that neither of these themes, or their many implications, are ever really tangibly felt. The story, or at least the one kernel of heaping plot that is emphasized most, is of a left-wing journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who, after being accused of slander by a corporate tycoon, is hired by a suspicious member of the secretive Vangar family to investigate the enigmatic disappearance of lovely Harriet Vangar (Ewa Fröling) forty years earlier. His accomplice is the super-serious goth chick Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a nifty computer hacker who was only recently digging up information about Blomkvist himself. It turns out that the same corporate head he blew the whistle at is linked to the grisly and immoral Vangar family, which tosses him and Salander into a spiral of violence and intrigue, as they say.

The problem is that the mystery being investigated, almost silly in its endless overload of facts, photos, and long-lost data, is never nearly as interesting as the sexually charged and emotionally tacit relationship of Blomkvist and Salander. It's an example of destructive exposition, spawned by a story whose many divergent subplots and unwieldy build-up of names and faces becomes a liability, a violation to the actual human drama that's being disguised by all the narrative playmaking. (It's no surprise that it presumably works better on the page, in words, than it does in a visual medium.) Underneath it all, there's Blomkvist and Salander, two potentially complex characters dropped into a situation that requires both professional and emotional intimacy. He's a lonely and vulnerable man spotlighted by a media landscape starved for a sensational story - which, ironically, is what Blomkvist makes a shallow living on - and she's a closed-off, vengeful drifter pining for human contact beyond abuse and rape. When they finally do touch, it's a wordless, visceral sexual encounter that ends with an awkward "yep, ok", and it's one of the film's most successful scenes because it simultaneously establishes the inexpressible desire between them and cements the tension they cannot defeat. Remove the obligatory shot of Salander's back-spanning dragon tattoo, which I can only assume is an offhand treat for readers of the book but actually has zero significance in the film, and Oplev has shot one modest scene of interaction between two people that is not bogged down by external narrative forces.

Bear in mind this is a very short scene during a middle part of the film when Blomkvist and Salander are sharing a small house in solitude to work on the case; cushioning it are the overlong episodes that are required simply to set up their meeting. For reasons never made explicit in the film, Salander must have a mandatory guardian passed down from the government, presumably to keep her violent and antisocial impulses at bay. When her longtime guardian has a stroke, she is assigned to a sadistic, scheming new one who takes advantage of her vulnerability, knowing that if she causes any "trouble" he can report her to a psychiatric hospital. Salander, clever and forward-thinking as she is, brings a camera with her to one of their meetings to secretively record his brutal chaining and raping of her, a piece of blackmail that she reveals to him later in her equally horrific act of revenge. Meanwhile, Blomkvist is shown meeting with a cordial Martin Vanger (Peter Haber) to have drinks and discuss his knowledge of Harriet. Martin, whom Oplev seems to think he has developed enough merely by placing him in this one scene of friendly interaction, returns later in the film to showcase a much darker side, kidnapping Blomkvist to torture, taunt, and lecture him about his shady father who honed him as a killer and rapist. Coincidentally, the film also ties up the loose strands of Salander's pathology by linking it via Ron Howard-like flashbacks and a flimsy scene with her hospitalized mother to paternal abuse and a childhood trauma involving gasoline, a match, and a car. What the film is trying to say about all this crushing patriarchal horror and masculine oppression - other than the fact that they permanently stain the victim - is anyone's guess, so they're reduced to unforgivably cheap thrills.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't faithful enough to any of these subplots in terms of screen time or conviction to muster up any tension out of the shifting power dynamics. At their worst, they feel like lazy opportunities to add some muscle to the primarily talky and systematic central drama, which is, admittedly, not even a very compelling subject to fashion a film around, especially since Oplev is not willing to give all the research adequate patience and attention. A quarter of the way through the film, Oplev has already established the small handful of recurring images that define and shape the investigation and indeed continue to throughout its duration: a black-and-white portrait of a smiling Harriet, a shot of her with a group of schoolchildren, and the perspective angle of a man across the yard in a blue sweater who instills fear in Harriet. As the characters struggle to extract the meaning behind the grainy photos, Oplev is happy to just keep showing them, not in the determined, purposeful manner with which Antonioni repeated the same photographs in Blow-Up, just out of a lack of anything else to show. Elsewhere, the guy doesn't seem to mind showing too much: the visual design of the production must have been to get coverage of every scene from every angle and then piece the shots together at random in the final edit. Rather than open up space, this approach paradoxically closes off and disorients it. Like much of the film, it's a decision that overcomplicates the core meaning, making it not quite the propulsive thriller it's intended to be and more of a drawn-out headache.

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