Thursday, April 2, 2015
Putting the "list" in "miserablist"! (or, the films of David Fincher ranked, no. 2)
For going on twenty years now—my how time flies—David Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem. Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, and—most important of all—highly entertaining. Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever. On this episode: murder and mayhem!
Spoiler alert: moderate
2. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist heads north at the behest of billionaire Henrik Vanger to solve the disappearance of Vanger's niece Harriet, which should be no problem, since she's only been missing for 40 years. Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, Lisbeth Salander, a private sector spy with a history of violence, completes a rape-revenge cycle before joining Mikael on the case. Between the two of them but mostly Lisbeth, time is compelled to vomit up its secrets, and then things get personal.
For most people, it might feel weird to plausibly suspect that you could be, literally, a movie's single biggest fan. It happens to me all the time.
David Fincher returned in 2011 with his gallant crew, fresh off their success on The Social Network. The evolution of his style is minute but revealing; Austere Rich Person Misery is further explored by production designer Donald Graham Burt and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, only now they bend their aesthetic toward contemporary Gothic horror. The partnership with R+R Music Factory continues as well, with their best score, hence the best score of any Fincher film; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work is vicious, unsettling, and weirdly catchy. Kurt Baxter and Angus Wall's editing keeps pace. With such craftsmen, the result was bound to be worthwhile. And so it is: despite action that more ordinarily consists of document review than it does violence, and despite screenwriter Steve Zaillian's sprawling five-act structure and near-epic scope, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo moves with quicksilver alacrity. It's perfect pulp for any season, but especially winter.
Maybe it oughtn't be—this is Fincher's purest exploitation. Events that in the abstract seem outrageously inappropriate for anything but the dourest treatment are, indeed, still treated with the gravest respect, but—for lack of any better phrasing—they bleed seamlessly into a flavorful tale of murder, Nazism, and class war, physically rendered by overworked artisans who had to mock up thousands of photographs and other props that would be seen for a tenth of a second while the pieces are put together. And mixed in with the mystery is a hearty dose of outright action-adventure.
Entertainment was the goal—a "franchise for adults." At the time, Fincher was enthusiastic about the prospect of a populist trilogy, wherein his team could indulge their nasty streak on an industrial scale. It's for entertainment's sake that Dragon Tattoo freely borrows the trappings of a James Bond movie, even as it tells what amounts to a reverse-Bond story. Right out the gate comes Tim Miller's credits sequence, channeling Maurice Binder by way of bad drugs, a face-melting nightmare relating the ancient Scandinavian saga of the Oil People. By the fifth minute, the film has declared its intent to thrill and horrify alike. Of course, that's what "directed by David Fincher" usually means—but there's a promise implied by a hyperkinetic CGI cartoon, that while what follows may wallow in misery, it won't be too oppressively arty about it.
Thus the presence of Daniel Craig himself counts as only the second most obvious Bondian appropriation. But the film plays with Craig, casting the mountain of a man as a bumbling sidekick—and the hot object that the protagonist fucks, then saves. Rather than his menace, Dragon Tattoo invests in Craig's sensitivity, reaping the reward of a great performance. Craig generously recedes behind his co-star, but he also never makes the mistake of underplaying Mikael Blomkvist, whose character arises chiefly from the delusion that he is the invulnerable hero of his own story.
(There are direct nods to Bond, too—Mikael, in his ineptitude, winds up in a situation that, if not for the vile perversity distracting from the clarity of the homage, would be altogether too reminiscent of Goldfinger. Yet in the same instant, there is the gnarliest line ever uttered in a Fincher movie, a tossed-off explanation for the killer's hesitation, both funny and infinitely creepy, that would never make it into that other franchise.)
Dragon Tattoo is too enmeshed in semi-plausible detection to make Bondian excess our sole point of reference, but reflect: it offers a campy European supervillain; it features a bitchin' island lair; and, in its longeurs, it manages an honest-to-God globe-trotting caper. This much can be said for Dragon Tattoo, and it involves that "mastery of tone" I'm always on about: it is, by far, the most morally simplistic film of Fincher's career. That's no criticism—it's partly this manichaean frame that permits the film its excesses, its anti-structure, and its rogue's gallery of three independent villains.
Each represents another face of unchallenged evil; each is barely hiding, because each barely has to. Bond comparisons may be facile—there being much of the intentionally facile about this movie—but Dragon Tattoo shares a soul with Chinatown. This is a tale about corruption, but terrifyingly (and, it must be said, realistically), it is a tale about the spontaneous evolution of corruption in any society that permits it.
Dragon Tattoo has imperfections, largely cosmetic. The only deep-seated problem, and it's not much of one, is that the mystery's resolution is merely satisfying, rather than exceptional. And I can understand (if not sympathize with) an annoyance toward the film's overall construction. The only objective flaw is the inconsistency of the Swedish setting: the inconsistent Swedish text, and the even more inconsistent "Swedish" accents. Meanwhile, there is everything that is great about it.
And I really only ever needed to name one. David Fincher and Friends helped, but Dragon Tattoo belongs to her.
Fincher's movies are always well-cast (except Benjamin Button), and Fincher has, in his zeal to send his actors into ego death, rarely failed to pull great performances from them (as he did, notably, in Benjamin Button). Yet almost never have his casts been his most important collaborators, except insofar as if no humans at all had showed up to be photographed in his movies, he would've had a hard time finishing them. You could argue the case for the two films bookending this one, but only Fight Club really lived or died by its star turn. There, Brad Pitt played Brad Pitt to the utmost, something I agree that no one else in the world could have done. God saw this, and it was good. Twelve years later, Rooney Mara clawed her way into Lisbeth Salander's skin and gave her a life she'd never had before. God saw this, and said "What is it with these foul heathens at Sony, who haven't greenlit The Girl Who Played With Fire yet? I shall smite them ironically with hacking, and also unfair reviews for their Spider-franchise."
But "a life she'd never had before?" you ask, condescendingly. Dragon Tattoo is a remake, of course, of Sweden's The Men Who Hate Women, retitled from the novel, The Man Who Sincerely Wishes Women Were More Like His Fictional Character. (That's dishonest: I've never read Stieg Larsson's tome.) Anyway, books don't count as "life," but naturally I wouldn't make such an outlandish claim if I'd never seen the 2009 adaptation. A little ugly and a little slapdash, the effort is also more than a little boring—a mediocre episode of SVU. What I do remember includes Noomi Rapace, the first Lisbeth Salander. Rapace is more often than not an actively bad actor in English, but I concede that it was much less obvious that Rapace was only adequate in her signature Swedish role, too, before there was a comparison to be made.
Mara's struggle to become Lisbeth has been recounted often enough. Suffice it to say that, initially, the only one convinced that Mara was right for the role was Mara. Thus, she came close to being required to walk on water to get it. Walk on water she did, and, once ensconced, the daughter of aristocrats was met halfway by the work of world-class visual stylists. Through the ministrations of famed makeup artist Pat McGrath and costume designer Trish Summerville, Mara became the Cenobite Jedi who's seen Blade Runner fifty times—a winning mix of punk, goth, glam, and homeless, as achieved in a palette of smoke and night. Living up to the material and maybe even transcending it, Mara cuts an immediately iconic figure, as upfront in what Lisbeth represents visually as Indiana Jones or John McClane—which underscores the miracle of the performance, because I could drive to West Columbia, and within ten minutes see at least a dozen women dressed basically the same. Even the weird, clipped flatness of Mara's reads, clearly a deliberate evocation of autism but ribboned with what Mara evidently imagines is a Swedish accent, turns out to be an unintuitively good choice, setting her distinctly apart.
Above all, Mara's performance precisely strikes the balance between the fragility of a 100-pound woman and the frightful will that animates this 100-pound woman, who knows what kind of injury 100 pounds and preparation can nonetheless accomplish. There's a superhumanity alongside a harder-to-define authenticity to this Lisbeth. Every moment Mara is onscreen she makes exactly the right choices, whether it be Lisbeth's fury, her self-professed "insanity," or her moments of kindness and—fleetingly—of sentiment. The combination is compelling, even if that combination is also problematic, in all the ways a hundred thousand commentators have already identified—just like Indiana Jones or John McClane, I'd say, except that neither of them got raped to establish their credentials.
So, now we get to the rape(s)—talk about burying the lede. I needn't recapitulate the back-and-forth that began before Fincher's film was a gleam in a Sony exec's eye. I'll just say that the treatment of the theme here is, possibly, my favorite in cinema—to the extent one can have a "favorite rape," which sounds just awful. It's in how the event relates to the plot around it and to Lisbeth, informing both at a fundamental level without outright defining either. Dragon Tattoo may be unique in that the story respects this trauma while refusing to revolve around it, supposing that rape victims might well still have lives and interests outside of their rape. I've known a staggering, saddening number of rape survivors—so have you—and they're mostly busy being people. Kill Bill made gestures in this direction and fell flat on its ass; Dragon Tattoo succeeds, despite perhaps even more gross sensationalism in the depiction, because Fincher plays it straight.
Of course, Dragon Tattoo also presents a complete, compact story of wish-fulfillment ultraviolence, rendering it more fanciful (and "masculine") than some tastes found palatable. But it's the ordinary duty of fiction to have narrative; Lisbeth's vengeance is the baddest-ass narrative loop the movie offers. (Minus, anyway, one overdesigned sound choice, representing a certain jamming up a certain orifice, that would be more appropriate for The Girl With the Roger Rabbit Tattoo.)
Indeed, Dragon Tattoo's rape-revenge side-story is representative of the film's strongest aspect—its interest in its characters beyond their plot function. Dragon Tattoo is long, decidedly indulgent. It's Fincher taking Zodiac and applying it to fiction. The result is more determined and less true, but it frees Dragon Tattoo to be its own creation. What it chooses to be, surprisingly, is warm. In Mikael, it's obvious enough; Lisbeth hides and denies it, and expresses it in off-kilter, mechanical ways, but it's there in Mara's performance too. The thing that unites the three welded-together films that comprise Dragon Tattoo, more than theme, far more than the tenuous connections of its plot, is a very singular romance.
It's subtle in its development, but it begins in Lisbeth's very first scene, long before she's even formally met Mikael, and it serves as this disjointed film's backbone when nothing else would. It's not every serial killer procedural, nor revenge-thriller, nor caper flick, that ends on a bittersweet note of individual sorrow and everyday betrayal. Dragon Tattoo has the unique distinction of being the only Fincher film where I'd wholly invested in its hero's feelings, because it is the one time I think he was invested, too, suspending his customary cynicism long enough to descend from those operatic heights and capture a genuine human moment, with neither judgment nor with malice.
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)