Sunday, December 25, 2011

THE DIRECTOR WITH THE HONEY BADGER TATTOO

David Fincher don't give a shit.

I have a long and complicated relationship with David Fincher's cinema. His movies look and sound amazing; his visual style is uniquely his own and he has a very strong understanding of the effectiveness of sound and music. I like that he likes fucking with people, even if that means I have to brace myself before watching one of his pictures, because it's good when artists fuck with people. Comfort is a slippery slope to unconsciousness, a lot of times. And as a fan of cinematic violence, I have to give it up: David Fincher does violence well, and violently. In the fine art of ownage, he has few peers, even fewer living.

In spite of the fact that I like his movies—yes, even Panic Room; it wasn't good but craft'll take a picture a long way when the talent level's this high—a lot of David Fincher's fans irritate me. I should say, a particular (and large) subset of his fans annoy me, namely young men who've seen Se7en and Fight Club 8000 times, refer to him by last name only, and act as if he's the only person who's ever directed a movie in the history of ever. He's not the only one (see the intro to this post for some discussion of some of the others) but it still irritates me when mouthbreathers who don't know shit from shinola start getting all huffy about cinema and acting like “FINCHER” farts rose petals and has never shot a single frame of film that was anything less than perfect. This is not the case. He has the same Achilles' heel as every single other director since the dawn of the medium who doesn't write his own scripts: he's at the mercy of his screenwriter, and by extension, the source material that screenwriter is working from. Which brings us, even though that isn't a problem here (I regret nothing about having misled you by making an irrelevant point), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Millenium trilogy, the Men Who Hate Women books (their literal title in Swedish), The Girl With/Who series (their English titles), whatever you want to call the late Stieg Larsson's fiction, are immensely popular. They concern the adventures of the dashingly handsome, politically progressive, staggeringly brilliant journalist Mikael Blomkvist (by whom every woman in the known universe wants to be sexed, and who bears a sneakily suspicious resemblance to one Herr S. Larsson) and the goth/punk/club-kidded out, anarchistically-inclined, off-the-charts genius computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, who is (of course) omnisexual and has the most raging case of Asperger's on record. And wants to fuck Blomkvist, of course.

I'm not a fan. The books, in varying states of completion when Larsson died, lack dramatic focus, are larded with reams of unnecessary detail, and despite endless lists of place names with 2.8 umlauts per syllable, not particularly tied to their setting; you could go in and replace all the proper nouns and voila, they're in Minneapolis instead of Stockholm and nothing of value has been changed whatsoever. Still, in spite of all this, there's the occasional good bit to be found. I wouldn't give a shit to the extent to be this irritated by them if they were totally worthless. Take Salander: she may be a total author fantasy character and have no resemblance to a real human being and her emotionless response to the horrors visited on her is a little creepy and weird if you think about it for too long, but she still fucks shit up like a legend, and while her cultural resonance is largely with people unfamiliar with cyberpunk character archetypes (from which she is drawn whole and intact with no alterations necessary), that resonance has nonetheless been massive. And, for better or worse, she's a character that's virtually crying out (in Swedish-accented English) to David Fincher: “Direct me!”

More than anything else, it's the realization of Salander that made it absolutely necessary for David Fincher to make a movie of this material. There were Swedish film versions of all three books, in which Noomi Rapace made a name for herself (and attracted the attention of Hollywood, in which she now has a burgeoning career, with Sherlock Holmes 2: Bigger and Blacker and next summer's eagerly anticipated Prometheus; she's doin' ok for herself these days, and her excellent performances in the Swedish movies were directly responsible). Problem is, aside from her, the movies weren't any good. They were cold, inert, and way too big, kind of like glaciers. But their level of reverence to the source material made them quite popular with people who already liked the books, since they left nary an umlaut behind in bringing every last page of the books to (relative) cinematic life. And, being that these movies already existed, there was a bit of rhetorical questioning as to why American versions needed to be made, and a bit of harrumphing about Hollywood's habit of backstroking nude through enormous piles of cash. The thing about that is, no shit. Hollywood likes money, and they think “scruples” are what happens when your septum collapses from doing too much cocaine. We already know this. Occasionally, in their quest to make further and larger fuckloads of money, they realize that occasionally smart business decisions and smart artistic decisions have overlap. As they do in the case of hiring David Fincher to direct The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

As a business decision, it's what people in the habit of using phrases like “a slam dunk” call a slam dunk. While I might poke holes in his feature film work, David Fincher is beyond any reasonable measure of debate the best commercial director who ever lived. His ability to create images that are (all at once) lushly gorgeous, shocking, and disturbing is peerless. This has translated to his becoming one of the greatest ever in the slightly longer and very similar form of the music video, and with a directly proportionate diminishing in stature and effectiveness to the length of the form, an interesting and thoroughly singular director of feature motion pictures. Please note that this is a testament to how good he is as a commercial director, rather than a slight on his features, the majority of which are quite good. He has an absolute and manifest understanding of branding, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is very much a brand. More than that, though, it's a brand with no small degree of abyss-gazing with regards to sex, violence, and the overlap between them. David Fincher is no stranger to violence, and while the sex in his pictures has almost exclusively been subtext (aside from the Tyler Durden/Marla Singer couplings in Fight Club) the brand of sex found in Larsson's novels is so often associated directly with violence that that's hardly a stretch for David Fincher, and even less of one for his branding superhero alter ego . . . FINCHER ™.

Where the appropriation of the FINCHER ™ brand makes artistic sense is the fact that FINCHER ™ is not one to take orders. Tell him what to do, he tells you to go fuck yourself. Thus, in order to brand the American movies as an entity separate from the Swedish ones and assert the necessity of their existence, a director with some artistic cachet (i.e. FINCHER ™) is near essential, but the reason why the specific director for the job is FINCHER ™ is his subversive streak. This is a calculated gamble, because while there's always the danger someone could choose to subvert the material in some way that could totally fuck things up, someone with an understanding of branding is less likely to fuck with stuff too much. Or, in other words, the degree of subversion you're going to get is more in toying with subtext and streamlining rather than any kind of radical changes. And that's exactly what I liked about David Fincher's take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (Note: hereafter be spoy-laaaaaaz)


This version eschews the book's digressions and zooms through the establishment of journo-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig)'s situation (hewroteathingaboutarichguywhofuckedhimoverandnowhisreputation'sinruins; that's about as easy to read as it is to follow in the movie) and wastes just as little time setting up Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as a pierced, tattooed, eyebrow-less hacker dressed in all black who's at the mercy of bureaucrats due to her anti-social streak. Still, with all the streamlining in Steven Zaillian's adaptation, and the immense amount of exposition David Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth manage to convey visually, it still takes a while to introduce the main story, where elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Blomkvist to investigate the decades-old mystery of the disappearance (and almost-certain murder) of his niece Harriet. And, by necessity, the large and nasty Vanger family. It takes even longer for Blomkvist to hire Salander as his research assistant, but hey. Sometimes things take a while. (And sometimes they involve a whole massive creepy subplot involving Salander being sexually abused by her bureaucratic overseer that you'd think could be cut with no net loss other than one of the most fucked-up rape scenes ever filmed except, whoops, that sets up the whole plot of the second movie so it needs to be in there; I know it's part of what the book and the series at large is about, but it's still fucking fucked the fuck up.)

Blomkvist, with the help of an off-hand comment made by his daughter, catches on to a Biblical connection with Harriet's disappearance, and with Salander's help, discovers a related series of sex murders of women, though Salander notes Harriet seems to be an aberration within this whole thing. They find out a whole lot more about how the Vangers are fucked up and Nazis and really unpleasant shitheads and stuff, which eventually leads to the inevitable revelation that the big nasties in re: the sex murders have been perpetrated by Vangers. In particular (major major big-ass huge spoiler after pic, proceed no further 'less you already read/saw this) . . .




. . . Stellan Skarsgard. The problem with watching movies is that the second Stellan Skarsgard shows up in an American movie, you know he's up to no good. He's Stellan Skarsgard. Even if you don't remember from the book that Martin is the Vanger with the sex-killing hobby, you see Stellan Skarsgard and you're like “okay, the secret entrance to the sex-killing dungeon is probably behind the wine rack, it wouldn't be behind the bookcase, because that's where they're expecting us to think it is.” Cuz, c'mon y'all, for real: when Stellan Skarsgard shows up in a movie you know what the fuckin deal is.

So Stellan Skarsgard bushwacks Daniel Craig and ties him up in his sex-killing FINCHER ™ dungeon. Where there's a reel-to-reel tape recorder, because awesome. And the best David Fincher-y fuck you to everything ever (THAT I ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVED) . . . Stellan Skarsgard throws on Enya when it's time to sex-kill. Oh lordy lordy that's a fuckin brilliant touch. I . . . just . . . wow. Enya. Stellan Skarsgard. David Fincher, I hope when you're 90 and looking back on your life's feats, you start doing that old man laugh with the whole top half of your body and go “Heh heh heh, I had Stellan Skarsgard put on Enya . . . hehehehehe yep, I own.”

Anyway. In an extremely effective bit of cross-cutting, Salander gradually realizes that the sex murders were done by the late Gottfried Vanger and his son Martin, and just in the nick of time manages to save Blomkvist by barging into Martin's sex-killing dungeon and owning him in the face with a golf club, leading to a snazzy car chase, leading to Martin's car exploding without Salander having to do anything (even though she was totally prepared to light Martin up with his own gun, and in fact was juuuust about to when his car blew up).

After all the adrenaline wears off, it occurs to Blomkvist and Salander that they still don't have any evidence that Harriet Vanger was actually killed. In very brisk, blink-and-you'll-miss-the-extrapolations couple of minutes, our heroes figure out that Harriet is not dead, and is in fact living in London under her sister's (or cousin's? I'm not quite sure, but there's a pretty funny joke about Blomkvist not being able to keep all the Vangers straight early on that Daniel Craig plays perfectly, more on which in a bit) identity, a fact that was not exactly tipped in her brief appearance earlier, though the audience was given a heavy wink and nudge that Joely Richardson Knows Something About This Whole Mess that is paid off when the unmasked Harriet (Joely Richardson) knows everything about this whole mess, and reveals to Blomkvist that she faked her death to get away from evil rapist Martin after having earlier owned evil rapist Gottfried upside the head with an oar.

Blomkvist exhales, is exonerated, and then there's an extended denouement where Salander fucks over the guy who ruined Blomkvist's reputation at the beginning and loots his bank accounts to the tune of two billion Euros. She celebrates by buying Blomkvist a leather jacket for Christmas, only to go over to Blomkvist's and see him with his arm around his on-and-off married girlfriend. Having had a fair bit of fun fucking Blomkvist earlier and actually falling for him, Salander is pissed, tosses the jacket, and rides her famous motorcycle out of frame and the ending is gloriously bleak, the sound of FINCHER ™ astrally cackling reverberating over the closing titles.

As someone who, to put it mildly, was deeply impatient with many aspects of the book (and, by extension, the tirelessly faithful Swedish movie) I consider the Zaillian/FINCHER ™ take on the material to be a vast improvement, in that it trims a lot of the fat and makes the narrative not only walk a straight line, but sprint. The cinematography makes even the grimiest, ugliest, shadowiest parts of the movie look like polished jewels, and—definitely for the better—takes the edge off some of the jaw-dropping nastiness depicted. There is an argument that, since things like rape and mutilation (human and animal) exist in life, to shy away from depicting them is cowardice and a willful denial of their existence. Only thing is, in a locked-room mystery hinging crucially on multiple enormous fucking coincidences and a whooooole bunch of people not bothering to check certain things that people frequently check on (not to mention the entire story kind of rests on us simultaneously believing Henrik Wanger to be likeable, intelligent, competent, and yet not aware that despite the fact that he has untold thousands of pages of dirt on his entire family that Gottfried and Martin are multiple rapist/murderers, and Martin's fucking sex-killing Enya dungeon is in his own fucking house which is line of sight from Henrik's) we can't really be playing the reality card. Just, no.

As rifuckingdiculous as the story is, FINCHER ™ et al still tell it exceedingly well. It benefits from two terrific lead performances. Not that Daniel Craig should get a cookie for daring to play a flawed, passive man or anything, but it should be noted: homes is James Bond. And the way Steve Zaillian and David Fincher read Blomkvist, and the way Daniel Craig in turn plays him, is actually a far cry from the Stieg Larsson wish-fulfillment character he comes across as in the book. In this movie, he's the dumb girl character who opens the door in the haunted house with the monster behind it. Literally. He just wanders into Martin “Stellan Skarsgard” Vanger's house all derpy-derpty-doo like nothing could possibly happen to him, and if not for the “guy” (Salander) saving him, his pretty little blond ass would have been lutfisk. Peter Gutierrez wrote a great article about the gender reversals in this picture for Twitch, and he's absolutely right: Daniel Craig is the pretty blond in this picture. There's this very funny scene later that hammers it home when Blomkvist and Salander are fucking and he's saying something about the mystery and Salander makes him shut up while she comes. Craig, as Blomkvist, has this priceless look on his face like, “But . . . I'm the dude . . . right? Why is she . . . why am I . . . huh.” Craig plays it extremely well. He manufactures a number of beautifully real moments (like when he can't keep all the Vangers straight and just little things like stubbing his toe and cursing and stuff; he does all the little things so well that they add up to an enormously successful whole). Blomkvist is just kind of, for lack of a less reductive and potentially-argument-undoingly offensive term, a pussy.

Salander, on the other hand, gets to do all kinds of fun “dude” stuff, like riding motorcycles, tasering motherfuckers, ownage, even having sex with chicks. And the superior focus of this movie's script and direction (not to mention an absolutely fucking jaw-dropping, balls-clanking performance by Rooney Mara; fuck any sense that she's being overhyped, Rooney Mara is the fucking truth) go a long way toward making this point of Salander as superhero. Her badassness in the movie is sufficient that it doesn't even matter that she's an author fantasy character. In fact, the case for this character as an actual badass is made well enough in this movie that I'll concede that that was how she was originally intended. That intent is still undone a bit by the fact that the story has to go and have Salander raped, and simply not react to that rape in any kind of recognizably human way. I know thousands of fans of the books are throwing up their hands like “not this shit again,” but there is no objective defense possible of the whole Rapey McFuckface subplot in this story. Gottfried and Martin Vanger are more than enough to make the “evil that men do” point, without having to gratuitously undercut the (already flimsy) plausibility of Salander's whole character. If you have Rapey McFuckface the bureaucrat abusing someone else and have Salander's whole taser-hogtie-blackmail-tattoo business be in revenge of that act, you lose none of her badassness. You also don't have the absolute, irretrievable loss of any sense of the character of Salander as a human being. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, you need to suspend your disbelief already with Salander, and this disbelief is too heavy to bear that weight.

But I'm someone who used to be famous for assuring people things like “Dude, the first 200 pages of that book suck but the rest of it is awesome” and “The second lead gives one of the worst performances I've ever seen, but you gotta see that movie.” And thus, in spite of the source material being unforgivably lousy, I still very much enjoyed David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The greatest commercial director who ever lived sold me a product I strongly disliked. The male lead redeemed a character I wanted to kick in the balls by retracting those balls and outright playing the character as dithering, passive, and lucky rather than good. The female lead redeemed a character I'd dismissed as a creepy whack-off fantasy, and not even by being something other than that thing, but by being so goddamned good in the role that I'm forced to be like, “All right, you may be playing a creepy whack-off fantasy, Rooney Mara, but you got massive stones and you turned in a really fucking good performance.”

Basically what I'm saying is, David Fincher is as good a director as all his fans who annoy me think he is. The only counterargument I have is that other directors exist. But holy shit. David fucking Fincher sure is talented. If he doesn't come back, producer Scott Rudin may need to bring Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Sidney Lumet, and Alfred Hitchcock back from the dead and make a fuckin chimera out of those motherfuckers (provided the flimsy certainty of them even being the right motherfuckers) because the next book might be a bridge too far. That one's really bad. Guess we'll find out how good a necromancer Rudin (along with whatever writer and director he gets if Steve Z. and FINCHER ™ don't come back) is round about 2014 or so.

Til then . . . merry Christmas! Hahahahaha oh man I kind of feel bad for dropping this one today. But not really.