Thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The third entry in the Alien franchise. A thriller about a serial killer whose murders ostensibly represent a judgment of those who commit the seven deadly sins. A thriller about a birthday present gone berserk. A dark comedy about a psychotic yuppie-turned-terrorist who spends his free nights pounding other guys’ faces into concrete. A thriller about a woman and her daughter in their panic room during an intrusion. A crime drama about a decades-long investigation of a serial killer. These films describe some of the offerings by David Fincher. The anomalies-of-sorts come in the forms of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), an unconventional romance meets Southern yarn, and The Social Network (2010), in which a college student invents the cultural phenomenon known as Facebook and betrays his best friend in the process. But the former is far from a Disney movie, and the latter, while it doesn’t involve physical violence, is as much a story of societal ennui as Fight Club is. In other words, most people use the adjective “dark” to describe the work of Fincher, and they’re right to do so. He’s not a director one would expect to have a romantic comedy out this summer. His latest, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is more of the same with regards to adult content. It’s the type of film wherein if someone references a rape, you have to ask, “Which one?” Many Fincher fanatics were excited at the prospect of the filmmaker returning to bleaker, more violent territory, after the talky, PG-13 rated The Social Network and the long, leisurely paced Benjamin Button. I was in this camp as well: The Social Network is a very fine film, but Fight Club and Seven still top my Fincher list. If there’s any sole director (without screenplay credits) right now making a compelling case for the auteur theory, it’s David Fincher. He might not originate his own material, but a pattern of visual aesthetics and thematic fixations emerges from the stories that he chooses to lens. All of this to say that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looked to have the makings of classic Fincher.
Call me self-sabotaged by unfairly heightened expectations. Call me fooled by a savvy marketing campaign. But I can’t help but walk away from Fincher’s latest with an aftertaste of mild disappointment, even as I enjoyed the majority of it. Rooney Mara is every bit the revelation everyone made her out to be, and she earned her spot as one of five Academy Award nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Her Lisbeth Salander is a creation of animalistic proportions, all action and few words. A wounded bird one minute and a roaring lion the next, she uses the character’s physicality as an extension of her identity. And most surprising of all, Mara never looks like she’s showboating or calling attention to how “brave” and “different” this role is. In fact, she hardly appears to be acting at all, let alone overacting. To make a character like this (and that looks like this) come across as a human being and not as an actor’s set of choices is a feat all its own. Somehow the performance is completely natural, and I find myself stunned even now as I type this sentence that such an adjective can be correctly used in such a circumstance. Also natural is Daniel Craig, who seems to be building a career out of playing parts many think might be “easy” (an action hero leading man) and imbuing them with so much organic charisma and subversively witty personality that the naturalness of the result no doubt belies the labor of the process. I very much enjoyed the first hour of the film, as the mystery is set up and the characters are introduced. Unlike the break-neck, cut-a-second trailer, the film is somewhat slow and methodical, as Craig’s journalist pours over photos and documents and minutia. The obvious Fincher precedent for this is Zodiac, which takes its time (though not as much as its characters) to get the details in order. But while the latter half of Zodiac centers almost exclusively on the investigation, the latter half of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo flies in many different directions, and it feels somewhat flabby and unsatisfying as a result.
This might not sound like some adjectivally verbose, hyperbole-driven review, and that’s because I’ve become increasingly wary of critical responses that grasp at straws in an attempt to carve out something unique and revolutionary to say about movies that either a) do not warrant it or b) do not improve with critics’ perspective in mind or c) have already their praises and faults noted and portrayed in fifty different ways that mean the same thing. I’m not undervaluing the dexterity of cinema, here, nor am I undervaluing the knowledge and writing abilities of critics. Most films have subtlety of one kind or another, and most films have layers to the extent that you can’t catch or admire everything at first swatch. I just don’t want to manufacture some kind of monumental response that isn’t there, and since I don’t write professionally, I don’t need to. I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn’t think it was amazing. I think it could have used some trimming. If these sound like pedestrian comments, that’s because they are. My opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s. There’s certainly more to film criticism than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” (I wouldn’t study it if I believed this to be true), but, let’s face it, some films don’t exactly inspire you to write about them. And Fincher’s latest just didn’t. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t entertained by it. It just means I can’t add much more than your average Joe would probably tell you. “I like it, but didn’t love it.” This is not the first time I’ve expressed such a sentiment toward a Fincher film, and it might not be the last, but considering how talented the guy is, I can almost guarantee I’ll never not like it.