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Critical Consensus: EW's Owen Gleiberman and Elle's Karen Durbin On "Dragon Tattoo" and 10 Best Lists

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 21, 2011 at 10:52AM

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleibmerman and Elle magazine's Karen Durbin take on David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and year-end top 10 lists.
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Watch: Rooney Mara Lives Up to the Hype in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" Trailer
Sony David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network (newly relaunched in a temporary format while we prepare its new design) discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman and Elle magazine's Karen Durbin take on David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and year-end top 10 lists. More details on films opening this week follow after the discussion.

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."
 

"Mara's Lisbeth embodies the damage that was done to her long before what we see on the screen." --Karen Durbin

The drama of this pervades and even shapes the film. It's as if, with her ghastly pallor and implacable remoteness, Mara's Lisbeth embodies the damage that was done to her long before what we see on the screen. When she strikes back at her tormenter, it isn't only vengeance, she's also returning, however painfully, to life. And it's Fincher's impeccable eye at work when she joins Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist on the Vangers' isolated, snow-covered island. It doesn't look peaceful or wintry and crisp. Its remoteness and pallor matches hers, as if she has returned to a place of the dead. The Globes rightly gave her a best actress nomination, but I wonder if the Academy will.

In talking about the two films, It's worth noting that their source material, the first volume of Steig Larsson's trilogy, is clogged with information; like his avatar Blomkvist, Larsson was a leftwing journalist specializing in finance, so you get a surprisingly interesting expose of the financial corruption and hypocrisy running rampant within Sweden's tidy social democracy *and* a political thriller about sexual violence (he called the book "Men Who Hate Women"). Necessarily, both directors leave a lot out (including a third sexual partner for Blomkvist!), but Oplev's film feels clogged at times, never more than at the end, which for no apparent reason he pads with material from the second book. Fincher does the opposite, lopping off the first book's ending. It's absolutely audacious and, because it keeps Lisbeth at the center of the drama, works just great.

Owen, you've awarded Fincher's movie an "A" in your review, while calling the previous version "dutifully effective" but inferior. What makes Fincher's version so much better?

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.

"Is 'Dragon Tattoo' too violent and dark? Twenty years after 'The Silence of the Lambs' swept the Academy Awards, it would be hard to make that case." -- Owen Gleiberman

Fincher's version has all those things, as well as a doom-laden grandeur that makes Lisbeth, in context, seem a far more momentous character. Fincher isn't just capturing the literal reality of the book — the story, page for page — he's playing off the whole culture-shifting fact of its extraordinary popularity. His film understands in its bones that Lisbeth the victim/delinquent/wallflower/goth sociopath is a character who projects and acts out, in a kind of mythological way, so many of the contradictory impulses of young women in the world today. Their anger, their power, their image consciousness, their embattled sensitivity to victimization, all mingled with a sense of triumph. I assume it's that resonance, Karen, that you were referring to when you mentioned the film's "implications that you talk about afterward."

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.

Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"
Magnolia Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"

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?

Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."
Fox Searchlight Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."

OG: Well, look, I've complained a lot over the last few years about consensus thinking among critics, and I do think you see that in the universality of praise for "The Artist." I liked the movie a lot, but at the same time, I agree with Karen, there's something so slight about it. It's a delectable little love poem to cinema, yet the story doesn't deliver in a major way. I wanted to be wrenched—not touched. (To be fair, that final dance scene does give the film an enraptured lift.) If you're looking for a culprit to blame for consensus thinking, in a funny way, I think it's the Internet. The rise of the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes school has had a subtle effect on critics, making them over into comparison shoppers. Instead of just saying what we think, everyone is checking out what everyone else is thinking, seeing which way the wind is blowing. Plus, there's now an unspoken rule that 10 Best lists have to be more or less all middlebrow-to-highbrow. No popcorn or vulgarity allowed. But where's the fun—or the honesty—in that? I put "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" on my 10 Best list, because I truly think it’s an amazing and outrageously exciting movie. And I just think there's a certain orthodoxy to the kind of thinking that says: That movie doesn't belong on a year-end list—but an oblique, scattershot wall-painting-as-art-curio like "Uncle Boonmee"… well, of course!

"The rise of the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes school has had a subtle effect on critics." --Owen Gleiberman

So, given what I think of as the new Critical Consensus Culture, I was actually quite pleased, in a certain way, to see that "The Tree of Life" divided audiences, and critics, too. I think that testifies to what an audacious, boundary-breaking movie it is. Obviously, some viewers simply couldn't get past the birth-of-the-world prologue, though really, it's such a beautiful—and accessible!—sequence. And once the film settles into its portrait of the '50s, I think it's completely enthralling, in part because we're seeing not the usual Father Knows Best spic-and-span suburbia but a much more organic and quiet and pastoral world, before television had really taken over. Malick is letting us know, in a way, how mysterious life was when it wasn't covered over by media. Yet what's amazing about "The Tree of Life" is the way that that cosmic prologue underlies the rest of the film. This family, led by Brad Pitt, isn't just a "1950s family"—they're modern but also ancient, even primitive. They're creatures as much as those dinosaurs are. They're part of the family of man.

"The Tree of Life" is one case where I think the polarizing reaction the film inspired is immensely revealing, because it's not just about whether or not you go with Malick's formal audacity as a filmmaker. It's about whether or not you embrace what is, at heart, a religious vision of everyday life. God isn't just talked about, he's a character in this movie (the handheld camera in the '50s scenes is basically an omniscient God's-eye-view), the one who takes away one of the sons, and the whole movie then asks, "Why?" And by the end, we have an answer, which is that the son never went away. That family is fragmented and then, by the end, united. And that is not your typical happy ending. It's an ending that demands to be approached on a different level of experience.

So, to your question, Eric: I don't think "The Tree of Life" will ever stop provoking divided reactions, because what it's about simply isn't comfortable to some people. 

***

IW Film Calendar:
Opening This Week | Coming Soon | All Films A-Z

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)

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher, Rooney Mara, The Tree Of Life, Melancholia, Cannes Film Festival, Critics' Groups, Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier





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