Beginning with its strange and hypnotic opening credits, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo excites and confounds, making it hard to turn away from in even its most repulsing moments. The American adaptation of a Swedish crime novel and film centers on recently maligned journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his tortured research assistant-savant, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). The two form an intense bond while holed up on a wealthy Swedish family’s island, hired by one of their own to investigate a longstanding secret in the salacious family history.
It’s all very comfortable territory for Fincher as he turns would-be tedious scenes of Salander’s hacking into terse investigative sequences. And though this film is void of any severed heads, there are a few scenes startling enough to fit snugly in with his most graphic and visceral works. The film sprints through its mystery at the pace set by the keen minds of Blomkvist and Salander with little regard to any slower-sleuthing viewers. This is not a whodunit film for the viewer to out-analyze the on-screen characters, it’s one for a viewer to enjoy the breakneck pace of their hunt and the atmosphere of tension created by Fincher throughout. That atmosphere is aided in no small part by the disquieting soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Craig is fine as an in-over-his-head journalist but the film would’ve been better served by someone who could appear truly jolted and flustered by the danger surrounding him; some of Craig’s reactions still smacked of Bond-esque calm and collectedness. Mara, on the other hand, broods her character into life. She manages to teeter between a doe-eyed victim, laden with insecurities and a seemingly unstoppable heroine full of anger and vitriol. Salander romances the audience with her quiet candor but intrigues them by revealing the bare minimum of her own history. That character’s mysterious allure also leads the film to its greatest fault. Suffering from a problem common to the first film of a trilogy, Fincher and company manage to tell a story but it’s clear that the story is left for future installments. Though the Swedish family’s affairs have a tidy little bow on them, Salander’s story, the most interesting of the film, is incomplete. No matter how taut and entertaining of a film Fincher, et al created, the viewer is still left cold as a Swedish night until their next installment.
Terrence Malick stole my money and my afternoon. Tree of Life is 138 minutes of blow hard preposterousness that manages to come off as both arrogant and undecided. The story—if we’re applying that word generously—centers on a Texas family in the 1950s, the mother and father of which offer sharply contrasting philosophies on life. These yin and yang teachings seem to tear at their oldest son both in the fifties and as he looks back as an adult. And…uh…There’s a big bang, evolution, dinosaurs, a comet, humanity, and a beach. Yeah. I think that’s about it.
The movie isn’t without successes. The cinematography is unequaled. Even the (far too) lengthy CGI sequences are hard to turn away from. Brad Pitt, as the incorrigible and frequently belligerent father, is magnetic. He, his counterpart Jennifer Chastain, and the oldest son—played as a boy by Hunter McCracken—all turn in performances with great emotional depth and nuance. McCracken was especially impressive, encapsulating the constantly undulating emotions of youth. The problem is that these performances are cut short by Malick’s seemingly endless masturbation. He keeps each character at arm’s length, never allowing the viewer to empathize and barely to relate. The viewer is given five minutes of a nail-bitingly tense dinner table scene followed up by fifteen minutes of pretty pictures without meaning and wistful narration. The story could be made up of a dozen of these scenes and it would’ve been impossible to take your eyes of the screen. Instead it was hard to keep your eyes open.
For all its moments of strength and entertainment, the film still flops. It’s an attempt at something grandiose, enlightening, and divine but lacks the backbone to take a stand regarding what it all truly is or what any of it might mean. Malick’s film buckles under its own weight. The average viewer won’t be able to carve a true story out of the film’s shapeless narrative. “Did he die? Who was talking? What was that? Why are they…” The questions will proliferate as the film unfolds. Don’t bother trying to answer them, Malick doesn’t. Tree of Life is a visual triumph but an abject failure in most other senses. It poses questions that it never answers, sets up conflicts without resolutions, and starts telling stories without endings. If Malick intended to parallel the seemingly random nature and frustration of life itself then I guess he was more successful than I’ve given him credit for. If his goal was to entertain an audience, then he fell abhorrently short. As a preacher informs us in the film, misfortune falls on the just and unjust alike. And if you spend money to go see Terrence Malick pleasure himself in a theatre, then it looks like misfortune fell on you too.