Monday, January 9, 2012
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) A Film by David Fincher
At this point, the material that spawned Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, a Swedish film adaptation, and now Hollywood pulp-whiz David Fincher's version has been beaten to death, sucked of any element of surprise or intrigue that might have initially accompanied its narrative contrivances. So unusual it is that the shallowest, murkiest, most uninspiring story gets the repeat treatment, the full media makeover. I should pose from the outset that I'm not too crazy about Niels Arden Oplev's original film, a grungy and exposition-laden bore that revels in confused sexual politics, and judging by that disinterest I can't be too sure I'd find much to love in the book either. So it's fascinating, and quite indicative of old-fashioned auteurist theory, that Fincher, despite his inability to replenish narrative excitement, is largely able to transcend the questionable concerns of the prior versions and make the material sing in a distinctly Fincherian manner. Yet at the same time, it's bizarre and slightly disappointing that Fincher has chosen to direct The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at this stage of his career, right when one suspected he was exiting serial killer territory with The Social Network. The result is a work that feels like it's dislocating internally from a simultaneous maturation and regression.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary mainstream filmmaker, Fincher’s latest films reflect the zeitgeist in a very direct, uncritical manner. Extending the material's understated digital vs. analog subtext much further, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo often appears to be exclusively about modern methods of rapid information retrieval and transfer, with its convoluted thriller premise a mere vehicle through which to observe these manners in contrast to old-fashioned (and in this film, old-fashioned might just mean yesterday) modes of investigation. The dichotomy is rather bluntly manifested in the film's two central characters, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Blomkvist is the midlife everyman stuck in the mud of print journalism tactics such as interviewing and paper filing, meanwhile fumbling around with the technology of the modern world, while Salander is the no-nonsense techno-geek seasoned in Apple products and Google who can wrangle double the information Blomkvist can dig up in a week in a matter of seconds (the overt diametrical relationship, when played for belly laughs, is one of the film's subtlest strengths.) The film moves at a breathless rate, plotting the investigatory chasm between Blomkvist and Salander as it grows increasingly pronounced.
Fincher's particular manner of plotting, however, is unlike many other director's. He's not concerned with repeatedly taking stock in the emotional and psychological progression of his characters. Instead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo files information like the laptops it regularly pays visual attention to; that is, with mechanical precision and organization. Blomkvist's habitual search for cellphone signal functions primarily as a logical step in his communication process, a cumulative time-waster, and only secondarily as an indication of the man's archaic, clumsy character, his tendency to always be one step behind the gadgets he uses. Salander's systematic grabbing of a Coca-Cola before she sits down to crunch keys is emphasized as the constant initial step in her research routine, not necessarily as a thirst quencher or as a beverage that she has taken a liking to. And finally, here's the key idea: Blomkvist and Salander's relationship is seen first as a working relationship, a meeting of two minds to solve a case, and only then as a relationship between two human beings with unique emotions. Indeed, Fincher seems to be positing that stopping for just one moment to analyze, to ask why, is to be disingenuous to the nature of our contemporary global network, where information moves fast and pausing means falling behind or losing comprehension.
The film is propulsive for this very reason. Fincher's habit of cutting scenes before they have "ended," of showing a great deal of specific details but leaving out more salient narrative chunks, ensures that the viewer must keep up to maintain a grasp of the narrative's progress. As a mystery thriller, the film operates unconventionally; the eventual solution to the disappearance of blonde bombshell Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal) from her family's island estate and to the rapist and murderer dwelling within that cosmetically safe family environment is unsurprising and ultimately insignificant, as the investigative processes shown are so detailed that nothing registers as a shock. Craig and Mara inhabit their roles so thoroughly - Craig a casually probing, effortlessly easy-going guy with the conservative stylishness of a J. Crew model and Mara a slinky, bold, jolty specimen - that there is little need to question who they are, or what they might do in any given situation. Fincher's characters are defined here by a sense of being lived-in, of not feeling an urge to change for anyone or anything, which makes the analogy of them as pieces of hardware performing automatic functions all the more irresistible. His stylistic methods follow suit; much like a computer, his compositions find the symmetry and order in the messiness of the world, and when the camera moves, it moves smoothly and slickly, eschewing evidence of a human touch.
There are casualties, too, to this fast, coded, information-transfer approach to storytelling. That the film finds its emotional riches only in its final minute (more on this shortly) is both a brilliant tactic and a disservice to what comes before. The script's aversion to getting close to its characters even as they get closer to one another inevitably produces types rather than people, which becomes an issue when Fincher approaches socio-cultural diagnosis. Salander's real complexity as a character is in her concealed vulnerability, in the emotional restrictions she imposes on herself to deny her own desires. Because she spends so much of the film practicing this social abstinence, she veers dangerously close - with her fingerless gloves and lanky physique - to a clichéd computer hacker, as well as to an affirmation of the audience's preconceived notions of what a garbed-in-black goth chick is: cold, insular, violent, and armed with a nasty tongue. Neither does her grotesque manipulation at the hands of her lawyer-cum-guardian Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) and subsequent revenge go beyond shallow wish-fulfillment, despite Fincher's best efforts to keep the scenes direct and unglamorous. Not to mention Stellan Skarsgård's sick freak is everything Hollywood wants a sick freak to be: smarmy, chubby, clammy, initially welcoming (Skarsgård treats Craig to fine wine when he first meets him) and then sinister, and resolutely Aryan (that is, Nazi). Thus, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's macabre scenarios have a regressive core to them that Fincher's uncritical approach fails to crack.
But then again, even in the context of Fincher's characteristically sly ways, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo marks the first of his films where the complicated plot is this much of a ruse (that doesn't grant its missteps freedom, but it does downplay their importance). One might call these current Fincher films melancholy cyber romances, relatively sad films about how the endless build-up of information and connections in the modern world - specifically of a digital, programmed nature - paradoxically shields people from one another. Fincher's addition of the book's final scene (which Oplev curiously left out), wherein Salander buys a leather jacket of sentimental value for Blomkvist but throws it out upon seeing him romantically entangled with his previous assistant, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), is so powerful precisely because affect is avoided throughout the rest of the film, and its inclusion seems entirely designed to capitalize on this void. At this point, in this moment of downtime from the case, it's too late, just as Mark Zuckerberg's moment of downtime from the ceaseless growth of his international web phenomenon allows him to indulge a belated instance of reaching out towards his lost love. In a cinematic universe where the private is this public, these characters either do not realize their emotional connections or are unwilling to acknowledge them for fear of falling behind in a digital race. Salander knows that if she breaks the calculated facade she has built up and falls for Blomkvist because she will leave herself vulnerable to pain. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo concludes with a sharp feeling of sadness and loss entirely because a character has decided to make a sudden change in their external presentation, and, in effect, has become faulty data.