Pulp Friction, by Scott Nye
With his last three films, David Fincher has established himself as the premiere studio director currently working. The “studio” part of that is not a put-down, it’s just rare these days for a director of his stature to not generate his own material. Fincher usually has a role in shaping the material once it’s written, but it always remains somewhat outside of himself. This can create a fascinating collision of artistic voices that produces something close to a masterpiece, as with The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (and yes, I love Benjamin Button so very much). Or it can create The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The original Swedish film (I’ve not read the novel) felt already like something born out of the Seven/Fight Club/Panic Room era of Fincher’s career, but at this point that Fincher seems very removed from the man currently working. Still, I thought, wouldn’t it be something to see him indulge in his old fetishes – extreme violence, trashy women, pulp storytelling – but with his new talent for molding time to bear. One of the great, crippling problems of the Swedish film was its total inability to tie together many disparate elements or give any sense of the passage of time, two aspects of storytelling at which Fincher has shown exceptional prowess. And while this is a marked improvement over that film, Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zallian just cannot overcome, frankly, the ineptitude of the plot with which they’re saddled.
The story theoretically follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), though…he’s a weird one. As much as the titular character, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), is a total fetishistic construct, Mikael doesn’t fare much better. He gets to trot around with all the hot women, goes outside the system to prove his case against an ill-defined corrupt corporate official, AND tackles Nazis in a murder investigation. Really, outside of punching an asteroid, how much cooler could this guy get? And Lisbeth, of course, is a mess – a girl with a troubled past, probably autistic, definitely bisexual, a computer hacker, motorcycle rider, tattoo-haver…oh, AND she’s sexually aggressive? You don’t say.
Fincher indulges far more in idolizing Lisbeth than Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev did, and for the better – at least he’s honest about the appeal. Outside of her, I can’t imagine any reason to be the slightest bit interested in this tale – it’s a lot of complicated machinery to run a fairly simple machine. It’s a totally routine murder plot in which every discovery yields a new, ground-breaking revelation told in the most asinine way possible. The eventual, inevitable team-up between Lisbeth and Mikael is not only labored and completely constructed, but it reveals the lack of imperative in even giving us the previous…what, forty-five minutes? I mean, everyone likes to see a girl kick a metal rod into a rapist’s butt (or at least the film really hopes you do), but scenes like this, which are part of entire subplots, accomplish absolutely nothing. I’m actually quite fond of novelistic storytelling in films, but there are like five of these subplots, and they’re all crammed into a rather long film, leaving us with a feeling not of the time just rushing by, but of an incredible rush to nowhere. The events of the film are quite slow and methodical until the very end, but they’re paced like a network drama, leaving us totally disjointed from the characters and their experiences. Compare this to even something like Fight Club and you realize how little economy of storytelling is utilized in Dragon Tattoo – it’s all quick scenes that over-convey rather than suggest.
The worst part is that Fincher doesn’t latch onto the story’s pulp appeal (the Swedish version didn’t either, outside of it being kind of awful, but that doesn’t count). This is the guy who gave us Panic Room and The Game, but he treats a story as silly as this with the seriousness he brought to bear on Zodiac. The film has a few saving graces, chiefly Fincher’s ever-perfect eye for composition and camera movement, and he undoubtedly crafts some of the most beautiful images you’re likely to see this year. But there’s no shot in the arm to it, no urgency amidst all the rush. No life. I’ve never once found Fincher’s work to be “dispassionate,” as so many others have, especially with his last three films. I’ve found each of them to be incredibly emotionally engaging, just on a register not often put onscreen (frustration and obsession in Zodiac, yearning in Benjamin Button, betrayal and regret in The Social Network).
I never felt a heartbeat, outside of the occasional “hey what’s around that corner?”, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross pulses hard (and works overtime to tie the plot together emotionally), but it never resuscitates the film. It’s rarely an out-and-out bad film, but it sort of just lays there in a panoply of Fincheresque cliches and tropes. Can a film about rape, Nazis, revenge, serial killers, car chases, mysteries, and computer hacking be boring?
Of course it can.