ERIC KOHN: Now that we're past all that hullabaloo about "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" embargoes, we can finally discuss the movie. There are a lot of ways to tackle this one: David Fincher' return to action-thriller territory; the movie's allegedly unhindered punk attitude; the implication that its hardened female heroine represents a radical alternative to the typical male Hollywood hero.
But let's start with whether or not those last two items are really so original. Since "Dragon Tattoo" is, after all, a remake of a movie only a few years old -- or, perhaps, an adaptation of a book already adapted just a few years ago -- how does it compare to the existing material? Karen, you were a fan of the Swedish adaptation, calling it "gripping and scary," and labeled Noomi Rapace's performance "kick-ass." Would you describe Rooney Mara in Fincher's version the same way? And how would you say that this film compares to the previous one overall? Is it even relevant to compare the two?
KAREN DURBIN: I did like Neils Arden Oplev's version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," although I confess that except for Rapace's Lisbeth, it has faded in memory in a way that no Fincher movie ever does. I think if I watched it again, it would still be gripping and scary. How could it not, with Lisbeth's literally torturous plot thread and the gruesome history of the wealthy, secretive Vanger clan? But that was then and this is Fincher, and there's no question that his is the greater film. It isn't just a thriller or an action flick; it feels resonant, full of implications that you talk about afterwards. It's also no knock on Rapace that Rooney Mara's take brings something to the character that's not only special, it's astonishing. Yes, she's tough, damaged, brilliant and so determined to be in charge that she's nearly asocial. But she's also haunting and haunted. Owen nailed it when he called her almost ghostly. I looked up the word *revenant* when I read that, and it's perfect: "1. One who returns after a lengthy absence. 2. One who returns after death."
OWEN GLEIBERMAN: There's been a sort of raging pre-release debate, most of it online, about the Swedish version vs. the Fincher remake. And to me, at least, it's kind of funny that the whole discussion is trapped in a paradigm—the original was "pure and artistic," the Hollywood version is "unnecessary"—that seems almost exactly the opposite of what's true. The Swedish film was, of course, very faithful to the book, and it got the job done (I enjoyed it a lot). But come on, people—it’s such a prosaic and rather functional piece of filmmaking. And it will probably be seen, at least in the United States, by about one-thirtieth the number of people who see Fincher's version. If you really look at it, there’s a kind of indie-rock-snob, I saw it first and I’m cool mystique embedded in the over-lionizing of the Swedish version. As a movie, it lacks mood, style, visual poetry and danger.
But now that I've said that, let me lay out what is basically my version of a feminist conspiracy theory. Karen, you wondered if the Academy would recognize Rooney Mara's incredible performance and obviously the jury is out on that. But for the moment, at least, the critical-publicity-awards-industrial complex appears to have decreed that "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" isn't an "awards film." And frankly, I'm really suspect about why that is. Is the movie, as some have claimed, too violent and dark? Twenty years after "The Silence of the Lambs" swept the Academy Awards, it would be hard to make that case. (If anything, the culture is much, much edgier now.) But is "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" too much of a flashy-disreputable pop genre film? I don’t know—is it really any more of a flashy-disreputable pop genre film than, say, "District 9"? Given Fincher's status as a new-style Hollywood classicist, I would argue that the slightly patronizing, sorry-we’re-not-buying response that "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" has provoked so far on the awards-chatter circuit may, more than anything, have to do with an unacknowledged, deep-down lack of ease that a lot of people—especially men—feel with granting full artistic credibility to a story driven by a female character who is simultaneously as powerful and as extravagantly, sordidly out there as Lisbeth Salander.
KD: Owen, I wasn't aware of the Swedish v. Fincher debate on the web, but it sounds absurd. It's the reverse of what happened with another Swedish movie, Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In." The American remake was good, but the praise it got--some of which suggested that it was better than the original--was ridiculous. Alfredson's movie isn't just a good vampire flick; it's an entrancing exploration of loneliness, as soulful and sure-footed as Fincher's version of "Dragon Tattoo," and both movies are inflected with touches of wit that keep them from becoming oppressive. I agree that genre flicks aren't an issue for the Academy and the mainstream industry, but female characters are, particularly if they're "difficult." But even if they aren't, there have been too many years recently (although not this one) when the Academy had to scrape to find five nominees for the best actress category, not for a lack of actresses but of strong award-worthy roles for them to play.
As for the powerful and wildly transgressive Lisbeth Salander (whom I don't find sordid, by the way), I think such characters freak a lot of women out almost as much as they do men. Speaking of Jodie Foster, just look at "The Brave One," Neil Jordan's 2007 female revenge flick--and she's not even avenging her own attack, but the brutal killing of the man she was about to marry. The movie's not perfect, but it's clever and full of juice, and Foster is terrific, never more than when she's speaking in code with Terence Howard's supercivilized cop. With Warner Bros prepared to give it a big push, I came out of the screening exhilarated, convinced I'd just seen a breakthrough--the first female revenge blockbuster. Ha. Its Metacritic average was a lousy 56 out of 100, and the box office worldwide barely grazed the $70 million production budget. I like your feminist conspiracy theory, but I think your description of young feminists is optimistic. Speaking as a vet of the rowdy red Second Wave, I think watching women suffer on screen continues to be much more appealing to people than watching them avenge that suffering.
It seems to me that Owen's argument about "Dragon Tattoo" is a response to the disheartening reality of our culture's tendency toward a conservative unanimity during national pastimes like awards season. Critics, of course, aren't impervious to this weak spot. This brings us to another topic: The usual consensus among top 10 lists can be seen in several recent critics polls that honor the same films. This isn't so much an objective conclusion about the best movies of the year as it is a reflection of many critics' tendency to select films based on their popularity or presumed artistic cred.
Of course, none of us want our lists to fall prey to this trend. And now you both get the chance to defend yourselves: Karen, tell us about your top film of the year. What sort of challenges did you face in narrowing down the list this year? In general, do you find that lists are helpful in evaluating the year in film or do they narrow a playing field that deserves to be more expansive?
KD: My top movie of 2011 is Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," his most disciplined film and I think his best. With a couple of exceptions ("Manderley" and the loony last act of "Antichrist") I love his work, the reach of it and the surprise. Time and again I find it rich and strange, from "The Kingdom" and "The Idiots" to "Dogville" and "Dancer in the Dark." His sense of humor runs neck and neck with a very real sense of doom, and both are on brilliant display in "Melancholia," a big zeitgeist film if ever there was one but blessedly free of bombast. (Actually, I don't think von Trier can do bombast; he's too neurotic.) The movie begins and ends with images so beautiful and mysterious they take your breath away--in the latter instance, literally.
In between, the story, such as it is, begins with a comic scene of familiar human folly and then gradually darkens into an almost unbearable portrait of human cruelty and pain. As for narrowing down my list, I have the same problem every year with declaring a single film better than all the rest. Does anybody ever declare a tie? I was tempted to do that this year, pairing "Melancholia" with Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods and Men," a movie that renders the ineffable with a clarity I would not have thought possible. I think lists shouldn't be taken too seriously, although having to make one forces me to think harder about the movies that went on to my list and sometimes off it over the course of the year.
I don't think top 10 lists say a lot about the year in which they hit theaters; they say much more about the listmakers, which makes them irresistible to read. The idea of "critics" selecting films based on their popularity isn't just loathsome, it's an oxymoron. Which brings me to the bandwagon effect that's currently propelling "The Artist" to critical and potentially prize-winning heights this charming, well-executed trifle doesn't deserve. What the hell is that about? I hate the bandwagon effect, not least because I succumbed to it nearly a decade ago. I had one slot left in my top ten list and instead of sticking with the choice of my heart, P. T. Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," I ditched it for Spike Jonze's "Adaptation," the darling of critics I admired. What's cringe-making isn't that I didn't trust my own taste. It's that I betrayed it because I wanted to sit at the cool kids' table.
Owen, as one of many critics who chose to select "The Tree of Life" as the best film of the year, what do you make of the consensus surrounding this film? Despite winning the top prize at Cannes, it seemed to divide audiences—and continues to do so. What is it about this movie that makes it garner equal measures of praise and derision? Do you think its divisiveness will die down in the next few years?
Films opening this week:
Albert Nobbs (IW Film Page)
The Adventures of Tintin (IW Film Page)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (IW Film Page)
PINA (IW Film Page)
We Bought a Zoo (IW Film Page)
In the Land of Blood and Honey (IW Film Page)