Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #32 & 33: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / Birdman of Alcatraz

NOTE: This review was written over the course of 1.5 months, almost a sentence at a time, days apart, usually with no attempt to re-read what came before it. I finished it so I could get it out of my life and move on. No reflection on the films themselves, which are good, just my own lack of interest in my dud premise. I encourage you to NOT read this.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Sweden, 2009) Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre.

Birdman of Alcatraz (US, 1962) Directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, Telly Savalas, Edmond O'Brien.

Back when I watched these movies, one of the things that intrigued me most about the main characters was their ultimate unknowability, even though in both cases we follow their story for two and a half hours. Both are antisocial loners: Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander is a young computer hacker with a mysterious past who can't be pinned down; Alcatraz's Robert Stroud is a convicted murderer, jailed in his early twenties, and spent the remainder of his life in prison.

Both are abnormally intelligent, Lisbeth having a photographic memory and mighty investigative skills, Stroud undertaking an ambitious study of disease in birds in spite of being confined to solitary. Salander's unknowability is enhanced by her being a fictional character, a creation of Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. Stroud is unknowable because the film presents him that way: a man of violence who is seemingly tamed by his exploration of the avian world, in spite of giving very little about himself away. In real life, Stroud remained a violent psychopath who killed two more people in prison than we're permitted to know about by the filmmakers.

Still, the film makes Stroud become an admirable character in some regards and my only real qualm with the film is that I've spoken to enough people over the years who seem to think that, by the end, Stroud's continued imprisonment is an injustice and the film is a social tract about the limitations of the penal system. In reality, the film does no such thing and that's what makes the film genuinely interesting: Stroud's behaviour changes, but is so directed towards his life with birds that it's impossible to know - is he rehabilitated or just redirecting his considerable energies? What kept me rapt for the last half of the film's running time was not knowing whether he would snap or was genuinely under control. Lancaster's performance plays into that beautifully: there's nothing extraneous about it, as if he couldn't give a damn what anyone else is thinking about him. Is the film's Stroud a benign figure at the finale or is the evil still lurking? In the end and to the film's infinite benefit, Frankenheimer and co don't even try to answer the question. They are merely interested in the unlikeliness and striking contrasts of the story.

The unknowability of Salander, on the other hand, becomes a bit of a plot device to Tattoo's filmmakers. As written by Larsson, Salander is a savant type, but in a bid to tame the 700-odd page novel, she is given even more prowess. One note rings particularly false: when she cracks a mysterious code in a missing persons case that has been cold for 40 years. There's not a single aspect of the character's persona that suggests she would have the slightest interest in the text that would give her this insight, and sure enough when one looks to the source material, the solution comes from a much more plausible (and ultimately more affecting) source.

Salander teams up with a disgraced journalist who has been hired by a wealthy industrialist to solve the mystery of what happened to the latter's niece, who disappeared many years ago. The novel balances the investigation with the backstory of both Lisbeth and the journalist, an aspect that has led many readers seeking a straight mystery to lose patience with it. The film streamlines the narrative considerably, and will delight those who found the book too digressive.

I saw the film first and delighted in the mystery, a sturdy one in the tradition of the recent Scandanavian thriller vogue, in spite of some nagging tonal flaws. The book reads well even with the details of the mystery resolved because the extra material definitely enhances the narrative. Two scenes of intense sexualized violence are a bit jarring and tasteless in the film's streamlined form, but sit better in the extended form (though, appropriately, still are not even remotely comfortable). It is worth noting that Tattoo and its forthcoming sequels were shot as one super-production, and exist overseas in a lengthy TV miniseries version that add hours of running time to the saga.

No comments: