David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rises to the level of its source material and no further, achieving no alchemical Silence of the Lambs-style transformation into something greater and more profound on screen than its luridly pulp print predecessor. Given how insanely popular that predecessor is, the odds are this adaptation will do well, and deservedly so — it does full justice to Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s irresistible, ridiculous creation, the semi-autistic bisexual genius punk hacker waif who partners up with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) when he tells her “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” Rooney Mara’s Salander is genuinely off — her antisocial tendencies are not portrayed as cute affectations, nor are her sartorial choices. She doesn’t look like a winsome starlet on whom a fake eyebrow piercing and a black t-shirt has been stuck, she looks a little scary, and more importantly, she looks like she wants to be perceived that way.
But the most interesting thing about Fincher’s film is the way it treats research, a topic he delved into with great interest in Zodiac, and which is conducted in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fluidly over digital and analog platforms, the film captivated by the process, never treating it like filler between action sequences. When Salander uses her laptop, she does it in the most realistic way I can recall ever having seen on screen, clicking rapidly through windows with keyboard shortcuts, using an exact phrase search in Google, skimming through a Wikipedia entry. These characters search databases, and sometimes the results send them into the stacks to dig through files and photos not yet scanned or on trips to talk to people who were there, the most analog sources of all. This film is generous with and respectful of how its oddball investigators page through records and make connections — we watch as the pieces are assembled, with fairly little exposition offered for those not closely following along.
When Blomkvist selects a string of old negatives of shots of the victim whose fate he and Salander are trying to determine, he puts them on his computer for closer examination. We’ve already seen the day in question brought to life in bright, warmly colored flashes of memory (the film spans a year, but its chilly contemporary Sweden never achieves the golden tones of these flashbacks even in the summer), but this is the first time it does so for one of the protagonists. It’s an eerie meeting of the past and the present — as he switches through the faded shots on screen they almost animate, the girl in the photo briefly brought back to life by his interest.
Carey Mulligan sings a slow, torchy rendition of New York, New York in Shame, director Steve McQueen allowing the entire song to unfurl as the camera peers into her face and then into that of her brother, played by Michael Fassbender, and we wonder why these two urbane siblings are so shattered by this musty anthem about how if you make it there, you can make it anywhere. Fassbender and Mulligan play Brandon and Sissy Sullivan, and if they’re not the most convincing pair of New Jerseyans (Fassbender’s Irishness, at least, is written in as part of his character’s background) they are terribly believable as two people engaged in ongoing and so far hopeless acts of reinvention.
We never learn what happened to them growing up, other than that it was rough — “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” Sissy pleads — but the marks it’s left may be indelible. She wears her damage closer to the surface, not just as self-harm marks on her skin but in the carelessness with which she treats herself — she’s discarded by two men over the course of the film, if you’re not counting her brother, pleading with a lover who breaks with her over the phone and then hopping in bed with Brandon’s skeezy married boss David (James Badge Dale) the next night.
Brandon appears to have his life more together, though it’s just a facade of control, with his incomprehensible high-powered job, his perfect suits and his soulless white box of a bachelor’s condo on 31st Street. The closest thing he has to a friend is David, who just uses him as a wingman at bars and has no compunctions about bagging his sister and then ignoring her calls. And despite the protective shell of success with which he’s surrounded himself, Brandon’s as much of a desperate disaster as his sister, his Manhattan lifestyle only a lux version of an addict’s sanctuary within which he can compulsively fuck his way through a vast array of women, some picked up at bars and others paid to be there.
It’s a lifestyle that’s only sustainable in isolation, and Sissy’s presence in Brandon’s space, her awareness of the person he was and still is chips away at his hard-won, unstable existence. Shame is about a sex addict, but to call it a film about sex addiction puts too much weight on this portrait’s barely sketched in cause and effect — whatever happened to Brandon, it left him obsessed with the oblivion offered by physical gratification and unable to connect with people on any other level. Shame is an achingly sad film about the failure of the belief that if you could just get away and start somewhere new, you’d be whole again. Brandon and Sissy can leave the past behind, but they can’t get away from themselves.
Two reviews at The AV Club this week:
“Senna”: The more I think about it, the more Asif Kapadia’s doc about the late Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna seems about the giant highs and terrible lows of finding your calling. Senna is a great driver and lousy manager of egos, but though one gets in the way of the other, he can’t walk away. This is who he is, even as it kills him.
“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow”: There’s something coy in the austerity of Sophie Fiennes’ doc about German artist Anselm Kiefer that gets on my nerves. A film portrait doesn’t need to explain its subject, but there’s nothing gained by the way this one refuses to try. Kiefer’s constructions do look amazing.
“How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” Charles Yu, 2010
This should be right in my nerdy/pretentious wheelhouse, being as it’s literary fiction with a shiny, self-conscious veneer of sci-fi, but it left me cold. Worse, it made me think of this annoying line from the annoying trailer for “Happythankyoumoreplease” in which Josh Radnor sighs “my great shame as a writer is that I’m just this suburban kid with good parents.”
The main character of this novel, who shares a name with the author, doesn’t have good parents, but they’re not-good in a deeply nondescript way that involves withdrawal and vague discontent and abandonment and occasional fighting in the kitchen, just not-good enough to send their adult son into a passive kind of depression that involves drifting around alone in a time machine for years on end, unengaged with the current timeline.
You don’t need Gigantic Issues to have a good story, but the problem with the Smallish Issues at the heart of HTLSIASFU are that the book reads like the author believes them lacking too, and that the SF trappings — the pseudoscientific terms, the girlish but troubled operating system, the theoretical dog — are all just there to obscure the fact that there otherwise no there there.
One thing I did like: the protagonist’s mother is living out her days in an hour-long time loop in which she prepares dinner for her son over and over again, a terrible/wonderful Asian mother fantasy, if one she doesn’t seem to buy into as much as her offspring believes.
The thing with this scene, which comes at the end of a documentary about the White Stripes’ 2007 Canadian tour, is that it seems to sum up a relationship of painful complexity behind all of the self-created mythology. We’ve watched the near-mute Meg and magnetic Jack on stage and off, a former couple turned faux siblings, Meg shrinking away from the spotlight while Jack never seems able to turn off. And in this moment, a performance in front of no audience but the camera, taped after their tenth anniversary show, they seemed laid bare. Why does Meg cry? Is it the weariness of serving as part of someone else’s performance art? Is it the sense of spun-out separation between the two, of trailing in someone’s outsized wake, his own chosen limitation to work with and around? Or is it just the weight of that much history, that much time on the road, that much time together, of knowing someone that well?
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lionel Shriver, 2003
I prised this from a shelf otherwise filled with Dutch paperbacks at a hotel in Thailand and read it in giant, heartburn-inducing gulps over the two days that followed. I’d always had an idea, based on the jacket description, that it was some lurid ripped-from-the-headlines sob story about the kind of shockingly normal woman who could birth/raise the type of monstrous child who would shoot up a school. Which it is, but in the least repellent way possible, using its central dysfunctional mother-child relationship as a “Lolita”-style platform for larger incursions on marriage versus parenting, on the “right” way to feel about one’s offspring, and on that particularly American act of slagging off America and holding oneself separate from it while living there, indulging in all its benefits and having no plans to leave.
The last part was the toughest to buy but the part I liked most — the idea that Eva’s snobbishness, her inability to see herself as part of the society in which she inextricably exists, somehow infects her child with sociopathy, a nightmarish incarnation of her own indifference. The filtering of everything through Eva’s unbearably intimate, meant-for-no one letters makes the thriller/horror show aspect of the construction all the more impressive. Eva’s not an entirely reliable narrator, but the fact that she’s made the story all about her, even in its awfulness, just underlines her dreadful humanity.