(Films discussed in this post: The Skin I Live In, Contagion, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.)There are two kinds of filmmakers in this world: those that suck, and those that do not. And when it comes to taking risks, the former group tends to play it safe, while the latter category pushes the envelope.
Two reasonably unknown filmmakers did just that with Shame and Drive (read more here), and now one of two things will happen. It remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to bring their edgy flair to more commercial projects, or if Hollywood will sterilize them, rendering the previously thought-provoking works they churned out prior to their breakout successes into studio mush.
Many of my favorite filmmakers are those who bring an edge to material that might otherwise be rather par-for-the-course, delivering mainstream movies just left of center. Take Steven Soderbergh. Though he’s had plenty of commercial success with films like Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh must be admired for never resting on his laurels or repeating himself. Nearly every film he does is an experiment of some kind, something we haven’t yet seen from him. He has a spy thriller called Haywire coming out in January, which normally would not bode well. (January is a dumping ground for bad genre movies because all the high-end Oscar hopefuls are still in theaters.) But Haywire‘s trailer is promising and, if Soderbergh was interested in directing this story, there must be something to it. Steven Soderbergh seldom makes a thoroughly bad movie. (Though Ocean’s Twelve was about as dismal as can be.)In 2011, he had Contagion — a solid thriller about an epidemic that wipes out a good chunk of the human population, including many of our most beautiful movie stars. The cast includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan, and Bryan Cranston — and not all of them survive. The trailer makes it pretty clear that Gwyneth won’t, so I’ll spoil that —she dies, and not prettily. It’s genius casting, killing off such a huge star right off the bat. It echoes Janet Leigh in Psycho, Drew Barrymore in Scream — other beautiful blondes whose demises sent the message that no one in this cast was safe. (And there is at least one other major big name who expires in a shockingly sad moment.)
Contagion is every bit as much a horror movie as Psycho and Scream. The killer just happens to be microscopic. (Which, in many ways, makes it that much scarier.) Soderbergh does not hold back on the gut-punching horror of seeing masses of people succumb to this outbreak (and the chaos that reigns amongst the survivors). We follow a few average American citizens, plus those working behind the scenes to find a cure. It all feels dreadfully realistic — more or less, this is what the end of the world looks like. An end that really could come tomorrow.
Though it is rated PG-13 and doesn’t show much excessive violence, Contagion is palpably unnerving. (The one truly gruesome scene is an autopsy of Gwyenth Paltrow; coupled with her head-in-a-box surprise in Seven, I wonder if the woman has some above-the-neck issues.) Contagion is one film that is tailor-made for viewing at home surrounded by as few people as possible, because sitting in a room with strangers who will inevitably cough repeatedly during the movie only adds to the discomfort. Rarely have I been so uncomfortable in my own skin as when watching this movie. After seeing Contagion, you will want to make a beeline for your home and touch nothing in the process. Let me be clear: Contagion is not a date movie. You will not want to kiss, holds hands, or even breathe near another person for at least three hours after watching it. It may be the worst date movie of all time.
That said, Contagion is not quite a masterpiece. Things get a little schmaltzy toward the end, and some of the subplots flat-out don’t work. (Marion Cotillard is saddled with the worst, which seems shoehorned in from an entirely different movie.) But with Soderbergh’s cold, clinical direction and A-list performers carrying archetypal characters as far as they can (they only get so much screen time), Contagion is one of this year’s most gripping thrillers. Kate Winslet is particularly engaging (but isn’t she always?); Cliff Martinez’s cool score is also worth mentioning, evoking a little of that electronic Social Network vibe. Plus, the final scene that reveals at last where this virus came from — and how randomly and easily it developed — leaves us on a haunting note. In most filmmakers’ hands, Contagion would have been pretty limp and rote. In Steven Soderbergh’s, it’s a nail-biter. (Or it would be, if you weren’t suddenly afraid to touch your face.)In other unsexy film news of 2011, The Skin I Live In is a similarly creeptastic piece of work that is unlikely to get you in the mood. Pedro Almodovar is a filmmaker who will never be accused of being too subtle or realistic or mainstream, but his latest effort shares a coolness with Contagion that can’t be ignored — and by “coolness” I don’t mean, like, wow man, these movies are super groovy. I mean they’re chilly, in their lack of compassion for humankind. Most of Almodovar’s films are splashy soap operas filled with vivid colors and even more vibrant characters. His narratives take the kinds of twists and turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan’s jaw drop in shock, but they are no mere “gotcha.” His are intricately-woven stories that often work backwards and forwards simultaneously. The Skin I Live In follows this formula, but pushes it to even further extremes.
It’s hard to say much about The Skin I Live In without giving it all away. There is a doctor, played by Antonio Banderas, who is experimenting with making human skin softer and more durable. Secretly, he also has a beautiful woman in a flesh-colored bodysuit locked upstairs in his home (played very well by Elena Anaya). His housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), helps him conceal her. Meanwhile, we learn about Dr. Ledgard’s past — his wife’s suicide, an attempted rape on his daughter — both of which figure prominently into the storyline. It’s something like Vertigo meets A Clockwork Orange meets another movie I won’t mention, since it would give away one of the film’s major surprises. But the Kubrick reference is perhaps most apt, since this shares his distanced, seemingly uncaring viewpoint of his subjects, something we’re not used to from Almodovar.
As is par for the course with Almodovar, The Skin I Live In is highly sexual. But unlike his most recent films, there’s a nasty undercurrent in this one that makes it hard to watch at times. In a word? It’s “rape-tastic.”
Yes, there are numerous rape scenes in this movie, including one that is shockingly graphic (made all the more uncomfortable to watch because the perpetrator is wearing a tiger costume all the while). By the end of the film, you will see this scene differently than you do as it unfolds, which adds a whole extra level of meaning — but while you’re watching, it’s brutal.
All Almodovar films (that I’ve seen) have a broad spectrum of characters ranging from nice to naughty — some you can root for, some who makes your skin crawl. In The Skin I Live In, it’s difficult to like any of the major characters. Only the mysterious Vera, imprisoned upstairs, is a candidate for our sympathy — but why is she locked up? We suspect there’s more to it than a mere kidnap situation, and we are right. What happens in the end is almost negligible, since none of these characters really seek or deserve a happy ending. (The tongue-in-cheek conclusion is darkly comedic, but morally murky. There could be an additional hour to this movie just exploring the fallout.)
The Skin I Live In is not one of Almodovar’s best movies — but that’s a pretty high bar. One of the reasons I admire him so much is his ability to take us to some very dark places, but always with a little heart, always with a little humor. The Skin I Live In has humor, but no heart. It’s a cold, curiously cynical movie, and a departure from warmer films like Broken Embraces and Volver. It bears quite a few things in common with my favorite, Bad Education, but without the emotional investment.
We still have the lush visuals, and Almodovar’s trademark long-winded exposition scene (sometimes they work, sometimes they’re less successful). Perhaps Almodovar was testing himself, giving his kinkiness and fondness for bizarre moments an extra push into the horrific extreme. I admire him, and The Skin I Live In, for this. At the same time, I am not as eager to revisit The Skin I Live In as I am to watch his other films again. This one is for only the boldest of moviegoers, and certainly not the faint of heart.
Which brings us to another, only-slightly-less rape-tastic film, David Fincher’s eagerly-anticipated The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Hot off The Social Network, Fincher returns to the territory he’s already marked so well with Seven and Zodiac — the serial killer thriller. It’s a zeitgeist-friendly adaptation of the first in a series of Swedish novels that just so happen to be international bestsellers (and already have a very good trio of Swedish films based on them, with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander).
The story is a sprawling mess, but a fascinating one — a journalist at a career low-point is hired by an eccentric millionaire to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet Vanger in 1966. He takes on a research assistant, dealing with some unsavory crimes of her own, named Lisbeth Salander. To accurately describe her requires a number of adjectives: tattooed antisocial bisexual goth punk loner biker spy with a photographic memory. Yeah, that about covers it.Mikael Blomkvist and Salander team up to drink a lot of coffee and investigate a number of surviving Vangers who are mpossible to keep straight (as they were in the book, as they were in the Swedish movie). Blomkvist even quips about how confusing it all is, so this film is in on the joke. What they uncover leads them to unravel the mystery of a sadistic serial killer, and there’s quite a bit more going on all the while, both in Blomkvist’s and Salander’s personal lives. Everything plays out almost exactly as it does in the book, though the script by Steve Zaillian and Fincher’s efficient direction zip through it all as quickly as possible. (Fincher’s knack for making characters staring at computer screens seem tense and fascinating, so crucial in The Social Network, is adeptly employed again here, with much aid from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ unsettling score.)
But what Fincher’s version of the film highlights better than ever is that its ostensible protagonist (Blomvkist) and “locked room” mystery are fairly rote, falling somewhere in between the stylings of Agatha Christie and James Patterson. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series would never achieve the international notoriety they have without one key ingredient: that girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander. (Which might be why the book’s Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, was changed to make her the central focus.) Lisbeth is the element that brings the whole property to life in the books, the Swedish films, and now this American adaptation. When she’s on-screen, our eyes are glued to her. When she’s not, our minds are free to wander and question the logic of this story, which doesn’t always hold up.This version throws a new twist on what actually happened to Harriet Vanger, and frankly, it doesn’t make sense. It might have worked in an Agatha Christie novel, but Agatha didn’t have Google. But The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo speeds through so many plot points, the audience isn’t given enough time to consider any plot holes. There are multiple mysteries, numerous bad guys, and so many red herrings that none of them really register. All of this is true in the book, too; I can’t say how this movie plays out if you haven’t read it, but I’d wager not as satisfying.
It’s a bit of a shame that Zaillian and Fincher didn’t take this opportunity to fix at least a few of the problems in Stieg Larsson’s novel — most notably, the awkward pacing. The American movie does an admirable job of getting us to Hedeby Island much faster than the book does, but it takes too long before Blomkvist’s life is actually threatened, and then it’s over too quickly. A better adaptation could have rearranged the timeline, allowing some of the scenes we see at the end (Lisbeth playing dress-up to visit a Swiss bank) to occur before the climactic showdown with the killer. Certainly a few liberties could have been taken; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo holds almost zero surprises for anyone who’s read it or seen the other movie.
It’s a wonder, then, that it’s so entertaining. There are at least five movies’ worth of distinct storylines compressed into one almost seamlessly, and for a two-and-a-half-hour film, Fincher’s version seldom lags. Fincher’s trademark perfectionism is displayed in every single frame, making many scenes more compelling than they have any right to be — it’s almost like he could direct this kind of story in his sleep, but that’s selling his craftsmanship short.The script has a few terrific lines, and even the villain-tells-all confrontation holds our interest and contains its fair share of menace. The film’s frank sexuality/nudity and graphic anal rape scene push the boundaries of what you might expect from a big budget mainstream film. Certain scenes are appropriately sadistic and chilling (you may never hear Enya’s “Sail Away” in the same way again), though The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo never reaches the horrifying heights of Zodiac. (But who would expect it to?)
Daniel Craig makes a swell Blomkvist, bringing the kind of magnetic charisma this character lacked in the book and Swedish film. ‘Cause hello, he’s James Bond! (And The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has its own 007-inspired freaky-deaky opening credits set to the Karen O-featuring “Immigrant Song.”) Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson, and the remaining cast do serviceable jobs with small roles.But it’s Rooney Mara who makes the movie. (Hard to believe this is the girl from the opening scene of The Social Network, isn’t it?) I was a big fan of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish films, but Fincher’s version makes Lisbeth something else entirely — she’s actually as weird as she’s described in the book, if not moreso. With just one word or a look, Mara’s Lisbeth commands every scene she’s in, and the film ends on a surprisingly mournful note. Best of all, the “relationship” between Blomkvist and Salander works far better here than it did in any of the other incarnations. It always felt like a stretch to have Lisbeth make a move on Mikael, but with this Lisbeth, we buy it. (Again, it doesn’t hurt that he’s James Bond.) Though this year is probably already too competitive for Mara to be recognized by the Academy, I’d say she’s earned a nomination. She carries the film.
Barring narrative problems that have been transferred over from the source material, David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a near-perfect adaptation of this novel, and just about the best Hollywood version of this story you could hope for. Let us be thankful for auteurs like Soderbergh, Almodovar, and Fincher, who are established enough to do whatever the hell they want, yet refuse to become Brett Ratner. They have made three of the chilliest, least compassionate, and most uncomfortable-to-watch movies of 2011 — and coming from me, at least, that’s the highest of compliments.
The Skin I Live In: If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is too tame for you, perhaps this will get under your skin.
Contagion: See it. Just… don’t touch me.