December 14, 2011 12:53pm EST
Let’s put the cards on the table: I have not read Steig Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” and therefore cannot comment on whether or not Columbia Pictures’ big-budget (American) adaptation of its first novel is a spot-on transfer of the shocking story or if Rooney Mara has lived up to the punk-goth-genius of an anti-heroine he created. This review is about director David Fincher’s craft and the dream cast he has assembled to make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of the most brutal and engrossing films of 2011.
Right from lustrous sexy title sequence evoking torturous S&M imagery to the ultra-cool Karen O/Trent Reznor rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” the Oscar-nominated filmmaker plunges his audience into a very specific experience. This is not to say that the story itself is notably inventive; Dragon Tattoo is more or less a standard serial killer thriller wherein a pair of investigators attempts to solve a decades-old murder that has ties to other gruesome mysteries and a wealthy Swedish family. It’s the sinister atmosphere and tone he cultivates using color music and lighting that makes this tale so unique and highly watchable in spite of the terrible events that occur throughout.
Perhaps most compelling though is its mixed bag of characters from different walks of life including Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a recently disgraced financial journalist in need of an assignment Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) a yuppie-ish corporate tycoon charged with running the family business started by his uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) and Lisbeth Salander (Mara) the alpha-outsider and titular character of this eerie epic. All are emotionally scarred and the actors charged with portraying them go the darkest corners of their own souls to make them their own. Mara in particular must be praised for her ghoulish and extreme embodiment of Salander who suffers physical and emotional torment unlike anything we’ve seen in cinema this year. This more than her scene-stealing presence in Fincher’s The Social Network is no doubt her star-making turn; expect to see her name on a marquee soon. Though she and Craig at times struggle with the Swedish diction (the latter’s native British accent slips through more times than I can count) they more than make up for it with their physical personifications facial expressions etc. Yet it’s Skarsgard who is most impressive as the younger Vanger (he’s of Swedish descent) and delivers a stunning and chilling performance that will rival Mara’s in defining this film in years to come.
Still this is a Fincher film through and through and I cannot think of source material better suited for the maker of Se7en and Zodiac than this disturbing chronicle. Visually he’s given the opportunity to create damp decaying interiors familiar to fans of his work but contrasts them with beautifully filmed exteriors including some terrifying whiteout conditions that are sure to lower your body temperature. In terms of form he and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall effectively lay out dual character arcs (that of Salander and Blomkvist) that run parallel but connect in uncanny ways until their eventual convergence resulting in a highly literary feel. Both Baxter and Wall won Oscars for cutting The Social Network and I’m afraid that their penchant for quick transitions between shots has a decreasing effect on the terror; for a film that so closely treads the line between horror-thriller I felt that letting certain shots play out a bit longer could’ve had more dreadful results.
Still in no way I am saying that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t come with its share of nail-biting suspense. Fincher takes tense situations to the next level using unconventional camera angles and Reznor’s unnerving score making many sequences in the movie hard to watch. It’s a tiring but entertaining task; one that is a pleasure and pain to endure but the auteur’s masterful methods are quite magical even when being used to tell a story as menacing as this one.
There’s nothing else playing at the multiplex this season that’s quite like it and should you choose to view it you’ll carry its shocks with you for days after.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.