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‘Dragon Tattoo’ is Fincher’s antidote to holiday cheer

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 30, 2011 7:37 am

Hope you all had a great Christmas and are enjoying the final hours of 2011. My holiday season has been quite relaxing indeed, with the exception of the screening blitz I’ve been embroiled in since I realized the first draft of my year-end top 10 list was woefully inadequate. I’m trying to cram in as many movies as I can before my list is due for publication next week, and the experience has been mind-reeling but, of course, invigorating in  its own way.

One of the best I’ve seen lately is David Fincher’s long-awaited “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which, even if it didn’t melt my face off with fire and brimstone as I had hoped, represents yet another notch in the belt of a filmmaker who, it appears, is incapable of producing anything less than exceptional. So if you’re tired all the happiness and good cheer that comes with the holiday season and wish to wallow in depravity and cynicism — as only a filmmaker can Fincher can deliver it — then I invite you to buy a ticket, take the ride and enjoy your journey through the darker recesses of the human condition. I assure you, it’s a hell of a trip.

There are many great filmmakers, and I follow their careers with interest. However, there are only a handful — perhaps half a dozen or so — who are absolutely incapable of directing anything short of a four-star film, and whose new works qualify as major events simply by virtue of their involvement. The short list includes artists as varied as Quentin Tarantino, Errol Morris and Hayao Miyazaki, and near the top of that list is David Fincher, the technical wizard who since his emergence in the mid-1990s has lent new perspective to the term “formalist.”

With films like “Se7en” and “Fight Club” (still my favorite Fincher films) he created an entirely new template for subversive genre pieces, and has since honed his considerable talents with movies like “Panic Room,” “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” In the process, he has established himself as one of cinema’s most distinctive visionaries, with an understanding of the finer points of mise-en-scene that sets him apart from his contemporaries. It’s a bold statement to make, but in a purely technical sense, I honestly can’t think of a more accomplished filmmaker working today. Say what you will of his propensity for doing 40-50 takes on each scene (actors certainly have), but the fact remains that his rigorous, unforgiving methods produce incredible results.

In particular, I cannot think of another director as naturally suited to handle material like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a dark, twisted, character-driven murder mystery based on the first novel in a trilogy by late author Stieg Larsson. (It is most certainly not, as many have claimed, a “remake” of the Swedish film released a couple years back. Just because you adapt a novel first doesn’t mean you get to claim ownership of the narrative.) Fincher, working from a script by Steven Zaillian, keeps the story moving along with a deliberate, slow-burn intensity while still managing to maintain a visceral momentum that makes the nearly three-hour movie seem about half that length. This is a dense, weighty story filled with numerous subplots, secondary characters and vital family histories, and only a filmmaker with Fincher’s sense of narrative economy could make it all so comprehensible, so seamless.

Fincher brings his usual bag of tricks: a sustained tone of existential dread that leaves the viewer completely absorbed into his hellishly enclosed world of despair; an ever-present, pulsating music score that lends even the most seemingly mundane scenes a sense of definite purpose; his signature “dark and grainy look,” achieved in part by the retention of silver nitrate in the film stock. This much is clear right from the opening title sequence, which is vintage Fincher and, set to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” plays more like the year’s best music video rather than a traditional intro. Depicting faceless figures drowning in oil amidst an equally hallucinatory landscape of murky techno imagery, it’s a pitch-perfect kickoff for a film whose primary intent is to immerse the viewer in an evil and cruel universe.

All of Fincher’s considerable efforts would be muted without a strong cast to bring these characters and their world to life, and stars Daniel Craig (as a disgraced journalist who is hired to investigate the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl decades earlier) and Rooney Mara (as the brutally victimized but headstrong researcher/computer hacker who helps piece together the connections between the girl’s disappearance and a string of ritualistic murders that occurred around the same time) are more than serviceable. Their on-screen chemistry is strong, and even though they only share a handful of scenes, they make much of their limited time by forging an immediate and credible bond that carries through and provides the emotional backbone for the film’s (admittedly protracted) conclusion.

It is not officially confirmed that Fincher will helm all three installments of the trilogy (which also includes “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”), or even if this one will make enough money to justify continuing the series. I hate the idea of Fincher being wrapped up in a franchise for the better part of the decade, so I would like to see some other auteurs brought on board — perhaps Darren Aronofsky, or Park Chan-wook, or David Cronenberg, or Alfonso Cuaron, or even a wild card like Werner Herzog. The possibilities are endless, and even if no other filmmaker is as naturally suited to the tone and intent of these stories as Fincher, I must admit that I’m curious what others can bring to the table.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. Reach him at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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