Movie Reviews - 2011 postsMonday March 05, 2012
Movie Review: The Rum Diary (2011)
WARNING: 161 MINIATURE SPOILERS
“The Rum Diary” is a 2011 movie based upon a 1998 novel, which was actually written in the early 1960s, about misadventures in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. It doesn’t have to be old news but it is.
It’s an odd version of old news. The lessons its protagonist learns are lessons its writer, Hunter S. Thompson, along with many others, communicated to the culture a long time ago. Druggies can be heroes and upstanding citizens can be villains. It’s us vs. the bastards, and the bastards are businessmen and bankers and land developers, shady and older and curiously sexless, while we, the heroes, or antiheroes, are young and aimless and vaguely anarchistic. We booze it up and experiment with drugs and lament the poor while trying to find ...something. Our artistic voice. Freedom. America. A girl.
If most movies present an absolutist vision from the right, with a taciturn hero taking on bad guys through direct violence and winning, the alternative version, the left-wing version popularized in the late 1960s, gives us an antihero, often glib, taking on dull but horrific institutional elements through subterfuge and losing. The very thing that Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) needs to learn in “Rum Diary,” in other words—bankers, etc., are bad—was communicated to the culture so long ago, by Kemp’s creator, that it became a genre unto itself: “Easy Rider” and “Animal House” and almost every B-movie from 1967 to 1982. So we wait for him to catch up. We wait for him to figure out what kind of movie he’s in.
It takes awhile.
Kemp may arrive in Puerto Rico in 1960 unformed in Hunter S. Thompson’s politics but we first see him in the classic Hunter S. Thompson pose: waking up, in a hotel room overlooking the beach in San Juan, dazed and hungover and horrified, unable to recollect who knows what godawful escapades from the night before. He’s there for a job, at the San Juan Star, because his two novels never caught on—either with publishers, or, in the end, with Kemp himself. Later in the movie he’ll talk about writers he admires. He’ll quote a line from Coleridge and talk about how the poet wrote it when he was only 25; he’ll talk about the difficulty of finding his own voice. The movie is the story of how Kemp, and by extension Thompson, finds his own voice.
He wants to write meaningful articles but his toupee-wearing editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), isn’t interested. He assigns him horoscopes, and pieces about the bowling alleys of San Juan, frequented by the dull and overweight middle class of middle America, and Kemp’s mind wanders. He finds a beautiful girl, Chenault (Amber Heard), but she’s engaged to a jerk, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants Kemp, of all people, to write marketing copy for land development on a nearby uninhabited island. They plan to wreck paradise again. Kemp goes along for the ride, signing an NDA and everything, but mostly he’s sniffing after Chenault. He doesn’t reject Sanderson until Sanderson rejects him. He finds religion because he’s cast out of Eden.
Did we need narration in this thing? Once Kemp finds his voice, we get noteworthy lines, presumably culled from the novel, such as: “I discovered the connection between starving children scavenging for food and the shiny brass plates on the front doors of banks.” We could’ve used such language throughout. The movie would’ve benefited.
Depp is obviously a great actor. “How does anyone drink 161 miniatures?” Lotterman demands when he gets Kemp’s hotel bill. There’s a pause, a few blinks, a slight wobble. “Are they not complimentary?” he finally responds.
But he’s too old. Sorry. Kemp is supposed to be unformed and learning. He’s supposed to be 22. Depp is nearly 50. He should’ve been playing Lotterman.
I actually identified with Lotterman. The movie doesn’t. It hates him. He’s on the side of the establishment. He’s old and toupee-wearing and soul-crushing. He makes sure that nothing really noteworthy gets in his paper. Except, I kept thinking, it’s not his newspaper, is it? He’s just the editor. He’s a higher-up flunky. Maybe I’m projecting, maybe Richard Jenkins added a humanity at odds with his character (see: Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Patch Adams”), but I get the feeling Lotterman would’ve liked the San Juan Star to be more than articles about bowling alleys and horoscopes. He would’ve liked to have had hair. He would’ve liked to be as handsome as Johnny Depp. Who wouldn’t? But that wasn’t his world.
Instead, the movie has sympathy for the worthless and vaguely fascistic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), who also works at the San Juan Star but who rarely contributes copy. He spends his days in a drug-addled stupor, stumbling from spot to spot, and occasionally putting on an LP of speeches by Adolf Hitler. Riotous, dude.
To be honest, “Rum Diary” reminded me of all I disliked about those cinematic, absolutist visions of the left: the celebration of drugs and anarchy. We get that damned quote of Oscar Wilde’s for the zillionth time: “Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We get Depp as Kemp writing his credo:
“I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don't know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
It’s tiresome. Putting hallucinogens in your eyes isn’t a political act, it’s a stupid act. The left never got that. They conflated the two. Watching “Rum Diary,” I thought of the sadness of the political arc I’ve lived through. Kemp is working toward a credo, an ethos, a style, that dominated our culture for a time but ultimately led to Reagan and Bush and Bush. He puts the bastards on notice but the bastards only got stronger.
Movie Review: One Day (2011)
WARNING: A SPOILER A DAY
“One Day” is a gimmicky little film that doesn’t deliver. It gives us one day a year for 20 years in the lives of Emma (Anne Hathaway), a smart, mousy girl who loves Dexter, and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), an attractive, outgoing, shallow lad who's too busy sowing wild oats to get serious about Emma. That’s the film’s main conflict: When will they get together? This year? Next?
The day in question is always July 15th, or St. Swithin’s Day in Britain, which is famous because of the following traditional verse:
St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.
I knew about the day mostly because of the Billy Bragg song, and because it sounds so fantastically British: Swithin’s. According to a quick online search, St. Swithin was “a Saxon Bishop of Winchester. He was born in the kingdom of Wessex and educated in its capital, Winchester. He was famous for charitable gifts and building churches.”
So is the movie about building churches? No. Is it about the weather? Not so much. Does it have anything to do with Billy Bragg’s song of lost love?
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love we spoke of forever
On St. Swithin's Day.
Sort of. But the movie fudges things in the manner of movies about love.
It begins chronologically in the late 1980s with the graduation of Emma and Dexter from college. Each has grand plans. She’s moving to London to write a book. He’s going to France to... I forget what. Learn about other cultures and then forget them.
In London, Emma winds up working long hours in a cheesey Mexican restaurant and getting nowhere with her writing and feeling defeated. Eventually she becomes a teacher involved with the wrong guy, Ian (Rafe Spall), a drab fellow who wants to be a stand-up comedian even though nothing he says is remotely funny.
Dexter winds up breezing through life. Before we know it, he’s the host of a loud, shallow TV show aimed at loud, shallow twentysomethings who like clubbing and video games. His dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) is appalled that he’s wasting his talents and his time in this manner. His father (Ken Stott) is merely appalled. He feels his son is drinking too much and not spending enough time with his dying mother. We’re supposed to take the father’s side in this, but the structure of the film, the one-day-per-year template, doesn’t allow for much emotional involvement. The father harangues the son for drinking before we even realize he’s drunk, for example.
Then fortunes change. Emma breaks it off with Ian, writes a book, it’s popular, and she moves to Paris and meets a gorgeous Parisian man. Dexter gets married to a busty blonde, has a kid, but loses his job and can’t find another. His wife cheats on him with his best friend. He’s washed-up and gray at 30.
But Emma still takes him back. She ditches Frenchy for him. True love.
With the central tension of the film thus resolved, other tensions need to emerge. They do. Year by year, Emma: 1) wants a kid; 2) still hasn’t had a kid; 3) dies in a biking accident. All on St. Swithin’s Day.
Afterwards, director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and screenwriter David Nicholls (from his novel) do a good call-back to that first St. Swithin’s Day, in the late 1980s, and to a moment where the relationship could’ve deepened immediately but didn’t. There’s a sadness to it, certainly, this early scene, but it’s not the sadness of the Billy Bragg song. Bragg’s sadness is about how love, which we claim to be forever, fades. “One Day” claims that love is forever. So the sadness of the callback, and of the movie, relates to the earlier, shallow choices Dexter made with his life and his love. It’s about all that time wasted.
I would argue that, regardless of what we do with time, whether we “waste” it like the grasshopper (Dexter), or "make proper use of it” like the ant (Emma), it keeps going. That's what's truly sad. It's not about bad choices made but of any choices made. Time takes us from a place where we are young and have many choices to where we are old and have but one: death. It takes us to the moment when one of us is gone and the other is mourning, to the moment when both of us are gone and what survivors we have are mourning, to the moment when both of us are long-gone and there’s no one left to mourn.
Love the poster, though.
Movie Review: A Separation (2011)
Our sympathies keep changing in “A Separation” in a way that reminded me of life.
Initially, Simin (Leila Hatami) seems the sympathetic one, at least to western eyes, since she wants out of Iran for both herself and her daughter, while her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) seem stubborn and awful for refusing to go. When Simin does leave, she goes, not out of the country but across town, to stay at her mother’s, leaving Nader to care for their daughter, Termeh (Arina Farhadi), who’s 11 and smart, as well as his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is old and suffering from Alzheimer’s.
But we also have sympathy for Razieh (Sareh Bayat), whom Nader hires to help in his wife’s absence. She’s pregnant; she has her own daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), an adorable, big-eyed thing, to worry about; and now, for 300,000 rials a day (about US$26.50), she has to look after Nader’s father, who wets himself, and who may wander off at any moment to get the newspaper at the newsstand down the street. Wetting himself, and not being able to change himself, is the big problem. She’s unsure whether it’s a sin for her to be this close to a man she doesn’t know, but there’s a kind of Islamic hotline she can call to plead her case. She does, successfully, but it’s really more than she bargained for. So she asks Nader: Could her husband, Hodjat (Shahb Hosseini), take the job instead?
Nader is willing, even grateful, but surprised when it’s still Razieh who shows up the next day, and the next. Something about her husband being in jail? Something about creditors? Nader is even more surprised, and angered, when he comes home early one day to find no one at home and his father tied to the bed. Initially he thinks he’s dead. He’s not, but he’s bruised. And really who would do such a thing? And where is the day’s money Nader left on the dresser? And it’s at this point that Razieh returns, with her daughter, and with nothing like shame or guilt on her face. Who is this woman? How could she do such a thing to his father? And still she demands her day’s pay? Why doesn’t she get out of his apartment. Out! Out!
Yeah, so what if Razieh slipped when he shoved her out the door. Really? She miscarried? That’s awful. From the shove? That doesn’t seem...? She and her husband are pressing charges? For murder?
God, where the fuck is his wife during all of this?!
The relativity of all of this is key. The lack of absolutes is key. The small lies that occur daily, or the big lies that occur when our backs are to the wall, or the information withheld to make one’s case better, all of these things are key. “A Separation” begins inconclusively before an unseen judge, and it ends—beautifully—in a kind of purgatory of inconclusiveness, and in the middle ... is anything resolved? The more both parties go to find justice, the more injustice they find. The more control they attempt to exert, the more things fall apart. “A Separation” isn’t just about the separation of a man and a wife; it’s about a separation from truth, from respect, and maybe from love.
My Top 10 Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good becomes very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011 and my reaction is just as strong. Really? Because I can't squeeze all I want to into my top 10. I think, “Surely I have room for 'Hugo' or 'Midnight in Paris' or 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,'” and I look back at what I already have and I think maybe this, or maybe that, or should I substitute the other? For what it's worth, my top six were decided early. It's the last four that caused hand-wringing.
I love the many connections between the choices below: the ominous, near silent moods of 9, 8 and 7. (“Tinker Tailor” would've fit in well there.) The stubborn, sad persistence of character in 8 and 3. The everyday transcendance of 5 and 4. The search for safety and God in 2 and 1.
Lacking? No, 2011 was a great year for movies. Here is my very, very late top 10.
10. “Bridesmaids”: When I came home from viewing this opening night and Patricia asked me how it was, I said, “It's the funniest movie of the year.” I paused. “And not just so far. I'm saying it'll be the funniest movie I see all year.” That prediction was really only threatened by one film, “Young Adult” (see below). Much of the movie is actually conventional. When her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged, Annie (Kristen Wiig) tries to be happy for her but can’t help compare where she and Lillian are both heading. Annie's life is in the crapper but she's her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Jon Hamm), keeps ignoring the right guy, (Chris O’Dowd), is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman). We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
9. “Drive”: Driver (Ryan Goslling) is so laconic he makes Clint Eastwood’s characters seem like blabbermouths. Initially this annoyed me. Initially I felt there was too much atmosphere and not enough substance. I’m not a fan of cool, or profess to be such, since cool is silent and distant, and the most interesting people I’ve encountered in life are the ones who are most engaged. Who talk. I’m a word man. Driver is not. He’s most definitely cool, with his toothpick in his mouth or tucked behind his ear, and so silent, a man of so few words, that I began to wonder, a half-hour in, if there wasn’t something wrong with him mentally. Was he autistic? And yet, despite all this, by the end of the movie I had absorbed him, or he me. I could feel it as I put on my yellow biking jacket, so similar to his silver racing jacket, and my biking gloves, so similar to his driving gloves, and walked out of the theater immersed in the dreamlike silence of the movie. I imagined I was tough and cool and hard-to-read instead of what I am: a tired 48-year-old in need of a shave and a beer. Holden was right. The goddamn movies.
8. “Shame”: “Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy (Carrey Mulligan) tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but writer-director Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
7. “Margin Call”: J.C. Chandor's debut film is our best dramatization of the global financial meltdown and should be seen on a double bill with “Inside Job” and maybe several “Frontline” episodes, including the ones on Brooksley Born and the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act. It's an ominous, moody, sometimes silent film with a great cast and a kill-or-be-killed message that the film doesn't celebrate but doesn't exactly condemn, either. It's about knowingly selling toxic assets so they infect some other schmuck. It's about how to SURVIVE, as CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells the 3 a.m. board meeting. I love how the characters surprise in small ways. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing. What kind of world is Wall Street? The kind where Kevin Spacey plays the moral pillar. Be very afraid.
6. “The Artist”: I think both fans and detractors have gotten this one wrong. They think it's a bit of lightweight nostalgia, a throwback not only to the silent era but to the next generation of filmmakers, which made great films about the silent era (“Singin' in the Rain,” “Sunset Blvd.,” etc.). But to me there are few films more relevant to the United States in 2011 than this silent, black-and-white, French film. For all its charms and zip and melodrama, it's ultimately about a man made irrelevant by new technology. It's about a man made silent by new technology. And in 2011, after 15 years of entire professions being decimated by the digital revolution, that describes too many of us.
5. “The Descendants”: Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, Matt (George Clooney), and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening. The movie's main characters, Matt and his two daughters—plus all of their cousins, including Beau Briddges' own version of The Dude—are the descendants of the title. They’ve been entrusted with this great wealth and the question is what they do with it. But the dynamic and the dilemma filters through to us in the audience. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth. And the question is what we do with it.
4. “Moneyball”: The feeling captured in the opening sentence of my review, written in September, hasn't gone away: I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy. Slowly I'm forgetting the falsehoods, however, the reduction of the career to one year, and I keep returning to the poignancy: the close-up of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he listens to his daughter singing on her homemade CD with words that fit him. Throughout the movie he wants to be the uberman. He wants to change baseball, and he does, but not the way he envisions, through ultimate victory. He changes it because he hits a mammoth homerun in a losing cause, but the mammoth homerun draws attention. Others steal his stance, his style, and in that way the game changes. In this moment, though, he's not the uberman but the everyman. He's us. Most of us are stuck in the middle; most of us don't know when we hit homeruns, or, if we suspect it, the homeruns go unnoticed and unmentioned. They're before the sparsest of crowds. Most felt “Moneyball” couldn't be filmed because it's about baseball stats, and who beside geeks like me care about baseball stats? But I knew it could be filmed because it's really about underdogs who band together to beat the big boys, the corporation, the evil empire, and that's most of our movies. I just didn't know how they would do the ending. The underdog A's under Billy Beane never won it all; they never even went to the World Series. I thought it was the story's great weakness. In the end, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller make it the film's great strength.
3. “Young Adult”: Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So why didn't it get out there more? It was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno” back in 2007, but this one isn't so traditionally feel-good. Mavis is an awful person (no empathy or tact), involved in an awful enterprise (winning back her high-school boyfriend at the age of 37), and in the end she doesn't change. She stays on the less-righteous, all-American path of perpetual consumerism and loneliness. Most people won't find it touching or amusing but I thought it was both. I found Mavis sympathetic in her situation and entertaining in her response to her situation. When Paige, Patricia and I saw it in a small, downtown theater with maybe a dozen other people in attendance, we were about the only people laughing; but we were roaring. It's that kind of movie. Its ending is so cynical, I felt something like pure joy wash over me. Most feel-good movies make me feel bad because they aren't any good. “Young Adult,” with its awful characters, made me feel great.
2. “Des hommes et des dieux”: “Of Gods and Men” is a monastic movie. It’s filmed as unaffectedly as the Cistercian monks lived their lives in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. It documents their modest activities in a modest manner. We see them carry firewood and clean floors. They pack honey, miel de l’Atlas, and sell it at the local market. They farm, tend to the sick, help procure visas. They study—both St. Augustine and the Koran. They pray and sing hymns and psalms. Mostly they are caught, trapped, between a growing Islamic fundamentalism and an authoritarian military government. They are trapped between the need for safety elsewhere and the need to do good here. What to do? What to do? At one point, the Islamic revolutionary, Fayattia, tells Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), a tall, bespectacled man who likes to walk in the woods and feel the bark of trees, that he doesn't have a choice in the matter they're discussing. “Vous n'avez pas le choix,” he says. Brother Christian replies:“Si, j'ai le choix.” (Yes, I have a choice.) “Of Gods and Men” is all about the awful, potentially transcendant weight of “J'ai le choix.”
1. “The Tree of Life”: Was there any doubt? It's not only one of the more evocative films about childhood (ball, butterfly, blocks, baby brother arriving and cramping your style); it's not only one of the more honest depictions of coming of age (from fighting father to wishing him dead to becoming him in his absence); it keeps in mind the existential. It doesn't allow us a cultural memory of 10 or 15 or 100 years; it goes back to the beginning of time. It blends religion and science, Job and the dinosaurs. How can bad things happen in Waco, Texas in the 1950s? Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Where were you when I allowed entire species to go extinct? The vast background puts the life, and the questions, in perspective. The fundamental dilemma of the movie, and of life (the movie suggests), is between the way of nature and the way of grace. The short cultural memory, the one presented in most of our products, certainly most of our movies, leads to the way of nature: the “I” standing in this spot and pronouncing dominion over this spot. The long cultural memory, blending science and religion, in which the “I” dissolves against the vastness of time and space stretching behind us and ahead of us, leads, not to despair, but to the way of grace. When the world is shining around us. And love is smiling through all things.
Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
WARNING: SPOIL YOU, YOU SPOILING SPOILERS
I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
The movies offer us a new ass-kicking heroine every other week, it seems: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Zoe Saldana. Even Natalie Portman tried her little hand last year. Even 12-year-old Chloe Moretz.
I don’t believe in any of them. But I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
She’s not fighting men three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. She takes them down with guile and tools and fury and ruthlessness. She either meticulously plans and strikes or just grabs a golf club and strikes.
One of the great moments in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor”) occurs near the end, with the golf club, after Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) rescues a tied-up and tortured Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and then, on her own, chases down Martin Vanger (Peter Haber), the neo-Nazi serial killer and general sick fuck who was torturing him. Let me repeat that. The bad guy was torturing him and she came to the rescue. Then she didn’t wait for him to recover to go after Vanger. To be honest, he’d just slow her down.
The girl who laid down and died
Here’s how original this concept is. In the 1996 movie “12 Monkeys,” directed by the unconventional Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis plays a man from a dystopian future sent back to attain an apocalyptic virus in its pure form so an antidote can be made; Madeline Stowe plays the 1990s psychiatrist who initially thinks he’s crazy but realizes he’s telling the truth. Her world will end and almost everyone she knows will die. And they’re chasing the bad guy through the airport when Willis is shot by airport security. What does she do? Does she go after the bad guy who has the virus that will kill five billion people, including probably herself? No. She cries, kneels beside the man, and cradles his dying head in her arms. When the man dies, all movement dies with him—even with the fate of the world at stake.
Barely anyone said shit about this idiocy. It seemed natural to them. Hero falls, girl falls with him. That’s the way of movies.
Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say: “Madeline Fucking Stowe.” Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say to the movie industry, who perpetuate this kind of storyline: “Fuck you, you fucking fucks.”
So I was worried how Hollywood would handle this aspect of the story. Obviously director David Fincher makes daring movies, but the actor now playing Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig, happens to be the latest James Bond, the ultimate action hero, who rescues women and saves the world. That’s his job. Is it allowable, culturally or legally, to have the current James Bond rescued by a mere wisp of a girl who then tracks down the killer on her own? Because he’d just slow her down?
The girl who does the tattooing
Fincher’s version of “Dragon Tattoo” is like a speed-reader’s version of the Swedish version and it still clocks in at more than two and a half hours; but it’s an improvement in many ways. It gives us a better sense of Lisbeth’s inner life, as well as a better sense of her relationship with Blomkvist and why she becomes distant in the sequels. It also doesn’t stick Harriet Vanger out in the Australian outback; it sticks her right under our noses.
Plus David Fincher’s signature gloom is all over it.
The novel is difficult to adapt cinematically because it really begins with three storylines:
- Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) is taunted by the murderer of his beloved niece, Harriet, 40 years after her disappearance.
- Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) loses a libel suit brought by an industrialist.
- Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her longtime legal guardian for one who demands sexual favors.
The connections between the storylines are initially tangential at best. Vanger investigates Blomkvist, via Salander and her computer-hacking skills, before hiring him to look into the disappearance of Harriet. Then, for almost an hour, Blomkvist and Salander follow separate paths. He traipses about in the cold of the Vangers’ various estates on their private island in Hedestad, digging into the past and searching for Harriet’s killer, while she deals with her new legal guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, the bad uncle of “Winter in Wartime”), a fat man who demands oral sex before allowing her access to her own money. When her computer is destroyed in an attempted subway robbery and she needs to buy a new one, he invites her to his home where he incapacitates her, ties her up and rapes her.
This is another scene I worried about in translation. The Swedish version is pretty graphic. And while the director of “Se7en” can obviously get pretty graphic, I wasn’t surprised, after the drugging and the tying up, that the camera began to pan out of the bedroom and down the narrow hallway, away from the shutting bedroom door. Yes, I thought. Leave the horror to our imaginations.
Which is exactly when Fincher brings us back into the bedroom for the brutal rape scene.
Did it seem more horrific in the Swedish version? Because I wasn’t expecting it or because it was more horrific? I remember Lisbeth limping home afterwards. We’re disappointed in her, this tough, smart girl who allows herself to get into that situation—until she reveals the camera in her bag and acts out her exquisite revenge. Fincher doesn’t give us the limping home; he reveals the awkward moments immediately after the rape. They’re in Bjurman’s place, after all. He has to untie her, after all. We see him slumped in the kitchen nook with something like guilt in his posture. “I’ll drive you home,” he offers, pathetically. When she slams the door, he thinks he’s gotten away with it.
I wonder what Bjurman thinks when Lisbeth calls and agrees to return to his place for more money. That she’s desperate? An addict? That she liked what he did? That his perversion fits into hers? Instead, he’s tasered, tied up, stripped and sodomized. He’s forced to watch a video of the initial rape and threatened with its internet upload if anything ever happens to her. Finally, she tattoos the following on his chest: I AM A RAPIST PIG. “Lie still,” she says, getting out the needle and promising blood. “I’ve never done this before.”
It’s the tattooing that makes the moment indelible. Up until then, her logic is Old Testament: an eye for an eye. But tattooing him adds something. The movie is about awful people who hide in plain sight, and Lisbeth is making sure they don’t hide too well. She’s handing out nametags. She’s branding scarlet letters.
The girl who is offered a purpose in life
What to make of the Vanger family tree? It’s a backstory better suited to novels. Henrik’s brother, Harald, is a Nazi who still lives in Hedestad, as does his daughter Celia (Geraldine James), while another daughter, Anita (Jolie Richardson), lives in London. Harriet’s father, Gottfried, also a Nazi, died the year before Harriet went missing, while Harriet’s brother, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), now runs the company. “I’m quickly losing track of who’s who here,” Blomkvist says. Amen.
Of this crew, Martin is the one we see most often, and who’s played by the best-known actor, and who seems a decent sort. Which means, of course ... There’s a dinner over at his place with Celia and Blomkvist, and it’s one of the few moments where the harsh, Northern lighting of Sweden, which Fincher revels in, gives way to a softer, warmer lighting. It feels almost cozy in Vanger’s place—particularly with the harsh weather outside. One can even hear the wind howl. Or cry? Like a distant scream? It’s a subtle bit but people who know the story know it’s not the wind.
Blomkvist does well digging into a 40-year-old, missing persons case. The day Harriet disappeared there was a parade in town, and there’s a picture for the local newspaper of Harriet in the crowd. Blomkvist goes to the paper, retrieves the rest of the photos, digitalizes them, and creates a crude film in which it’s apparent that Harriet sees something, or someone, that stuns her. Another girl is taking her own photos behind Harriet. Might she have taken a shot of what Harriet saw?
The old inspector on the case is still alive. He tells Blomkvist that Harriet’s case is his “Rebecca case,” which is an unsolved murder case. There are several of those. There’s also a list of names and numbers written in the back of Harriet’s Bible: “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027” and the like. Eventually the web becomes wide enough that Blomkvist feels the need for a research assistant.
Two reaction shots from this movie stay with me. When the Vanger family lawyer, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), suggests to Blomkvist that they hire the girl who did the background check on him, Blomkvist responds, “The what?,” with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. He’s used to being the investigator, not the investigated. That’s the first one. Then when Blomkvist goes to recruit the girl, which finally brings our disparate storylines together, Lisbeth is wary of him until he says the line: “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” Her reaction isn’t the blank one in the Swedish version. It’s the look of someone who is finally offered a purpose in life.
The girl who can hack into your soul
Now that I think about it, there’s a third reaction shot I love. It’s earlier in the movie. Lisbeth is meeting her boss, Armanasky (Goran Visnjic), and Frode, in a conference room in a corporate high-rise, where her mohawk, tats, boots and attitude don’t begin to fit. She asks, without worry, sitting at the other end of the long, gleaming conference table, if something was wrong with her initial report on Blomkvist. There wasn’t. They just want to know if there was anything she chose not to include. She turns away, offering her profile, and that great swoop of a mohawk, before adding, “He’s had a long-standing sexual relationship with the co-editor of his magazine.” Pause. “Sometimes he performs cunnilingus on her.” Pause. “Not often enough, in my opinion.” By now she’s staring back at them, chewing her gum, gauging their reaction. Frode, a proper gentleman, looks away. “No,” he admits, “you were right not to include that.”
This raises a point. Once they see how good Lisbeth is, why don’t they just hire her as their investigator? Remove the middleman by hiring the middleman. As good as Blomkvist is, he’s still 20th-century: forced, like all of us, to rely upon interview and instinct to uncover the truth. Lisbeth is 21st century. She can hack into your computer and see your soul. I love the bit where Blomkvist attempts to show her something on his computer, and her impatience with his tentative movements is palpable. It’s all she can do not to grab the mouse and drive.
As for how Hollywood handles the golf-club scene? The breadth of the investigation forces hero and heroine to split up—a trope that, in thrillers, usually plays to the detriment of the heroine. Not here. Alone in Martin’s house, Blomkvist figures out Martin is the longtime serial killer just as Martin comes home. But he manages to get out of the house. Then Martin sees him and calls out to him and invites him in for a drink. Later, when he has a gun on him, when he’s about to torture and kill him, he asks why he accepted the offer, knowing what he knows, then answers his own question. “The fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain,” he says, amused by human nature. He taunts him about Lisbeth: “I like that one. I can’t thank you enough for bringing her to me.” He’s in the process of suffocating Blomkvist when Lisbeth arrives, swings the nearest weapon, a golf club, and takes off half of Vanger’s face. Vanger flees and Lisbeth attends to Blomkvist for a second before asking a kind of permission: “May I kill him?” she asks. I forget if she waits for a response. Probably not. It would just slow her down.
The girl who rides off into the sunset
Was it worth it? Making this U.S. version so soon after the Swedish version? Fincher’s a better director, no doubt, and the acting is a little better. The script is tighter but misses the creepier elements of the serial-killer investigation. The bit with the cat is a good addition, but... I don’t quite see the point, to be honest. Other than to get Americans, who don’t read subtitles, to see the fucking thing.
As for what happened to Harriet Vanger? It’s not Martin. When he had the upper hand, he confessed to everything but not that. So there’s more unraveling to do, another half hour, really, and Fincher almost, almost, goes the route the novel went. When Harriet turns up alive—in Australia in the Swedish version, in London under her cousin’s name in the U.S. version—and we realize that she did this to save herself from her awful, abusive brother, my reaction was something like disappointment. Wait, I thought. She knew what her brother was and yet let him do what he did for 40 years?
That, it turns out, is Lisbeth’s reaction in the book:
“Bitch,” she said.
“Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”
The Swedish version ignored these lines—they didn’t want to disturb the happy reunion between Henrik and Harriet—while Fincher merely alludes to them. “Harriet Fucking Vanger,” Lisbeth says at one point. But she doesn’t go further. Too bad. That’s key to me. Harriet Vanger is pretty but passive. She warns no one, passes out no nametags. She’s no hero. Most heroes, our stories tell us, are men. Most heroes, our stories tell us, save the day and ride off alone in the end.
One out of two.