Monday, January 23, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Despite the decidedly dark subject of this story, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an amazingly engaging film. Recently disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by the head of a wealthy Swedish family to discover whatever became of his niece, who went missing forty years ago and was never heard from again. Blomkvist in turn hires Lisbeth Salander, a young goth/punk techie, to help him uncover a decades-old mystery.

The success of the film can be divided fairly equally into three parts: its casting, the cinematography, and the screenplay itself. Rooney Mara's Lisbeth is a dark, but undoubtedly multi-dimensional character. By way of her subtle facial expressions one gets a sense of her depth without losing the integrity of her tough-girl façade. Our understanding of Lisbeth's nature is allowed to unfold throughout the movie, giving audiences a very rich picture of her experience and character. We are at once allied to her success and intimidated by her intense behavior. Mara's precision and focus as an actor result in this thorough characterization.

The cinematography of this film beautifully captures the barren starkness of northern Sweden. The snow and wind make one positively shiver with cold. The filming captures the feel  of the geographic location while also paying close attention to the beautiful detail of the faces.

The presentation of the story itself is very well-arranged. Like any good mystery, the clues are presented one by one, not necessarily in order, leading to a climactic discovery near the end of the film. The mystery is such that you can make intelligent guesses as to how you think the thing was done and by whom, but you don't really know until the very last minute. There was also a legitimate amount of time spent on the development of the individual characters so that the film wasn't dragged down with too much heady plot thrust. The deft interweaving of both aspects of the story buoyed the tone of the film - knowing about the characters helped us understand the motivations behind the action while the action simultaneously helped us learn more about the characters.

There are two distinct problems this film presents. First of all is the abrupt and ungraceful transition at the end from the resolution of the mystery to the sub-plot about Mikael's career and the man who ruined it at the start of the film. This section of the movie, toward the end, feels disjointed. I was told that it is actually part of the second book in the series, so maybe this explains why it doesn't seem to fit well here.

The final scene of the movie was very close to ruining the whole thing. I don't think it'd be a spoiler if I said what happens. Basically, Lisbeth buys Mikael a present, then when she rides over to give it to him, he leaves his apartment with another woman and Lisbeth dumps the present in a nearby dumpster then rides off. This whole scene smack of the films of old Hollywood when a female character was really strong throughout the film, but in the last scenes is portrayed as weak. This was a way for those filmmakers to mediate films with strong gender messages with a decidedly patriarchal society. The majority of the film would exhibit non-conformist feminism, then the woman would be "tamed" or "put back in her place" by a hasty, often unrealistic ending. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we see a similar scene follow that trend. We have been led to believe that Lisbeth is a girl who can take care of herself, in more ways than one. Why then have the film end on a scene that portrays her as "just a woman." It's almost as if the message of the film abruptly becomes, "even though she's a highly intelligent, self-sufficient woman who can beat up her rapist and trap an international con-man, she still just a woman who feels hurt when jilted by a man." Now, I think one of this movie's strong points is that Lisbeth is portrayed in various scenes as very tough, but also human. But the final scene doesn't need to undermine strength of her humanity in this way (I also don't care if the book ends this way as well - my point is that it's a bad ending under any circumstances).

I encourage everyone of age to see this movie. It's very solidly constructed in almost every way. I think one needs to have a strong stomach for those scenes that are a bit unsavory, but the tempo of the story is satisfying. If I were to see it again, I would just leave before that very last scene. Actually, it would be an awesome place to end, before that very last scene, and that almost makes it worse that they insisted on tacking it on.

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