January 1, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

One of the many fantastic things about this adaptation:  the way that Daniel Craig plays his character, Mikael Blomkvist, without a trace of JamesBondness, that stylized disregard for social convention that involves steely gazes, a lack of emotional affect, and the avoidance of such social greasers as the words "hello" and "goodbye." This character smiles when introduced, keeps up normal chatter, and acts scared when shot at.

It's become a cinematic joke that people in the movies never say "bye" on the phone; they just hang up. But that's just one instance, a stand-in for all the small ways in which movie behavior is unnatural. For the most part, movie characters are more composed and less verbal than real people, to the point where seeing realistic behavior in a movie character can be jarring and look wrong.

A favorite example of this is Ashton Kutcher's acting in The Butterfly Effect. In this film his character repeatedly re-makes decisions from his past in an attempt to avoid a sad outcome that has happened in the real world. But his choices produce unintended consequences, causing him to struggle back to point zero and try again. After one attempt, he wakes up the next morning to find himself in bed, paralyzed. He realizes his state and, wide-eyed, exclaims "What the fuck!" Roger Ebert criticized this reaction, saying that Kutcher sounded like a frat boy who had just spilled beer at a party.

There are lots of ways this scene could have been written and played. I imagine Roger Ebert's preferred sequence to be something like this: It's a middle-aged man on the table, De Niro or Sean Penn. He wakes up, realizes his condition, and . . . blinks. A muscle in his neck pulses. He presses his lips together for a moment only.

This, for lots and lots of people, is great acting. But if it were you or me on that bed, waking up to find ourselves paralyzed, we would totally bug out and scream "What the fuck!" Anyone would. We're not made to react to events like a superhero or a soldier under interrogation. It's unnatural, and a film that shows characters acting in that way is indulging in a very stylized and unrealistic approach to character.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. We as viewers like to identify with characters who are like us but better: tougher, wittier, more composed, smarter, what have you. It's a game of psychological identification, where we get to imagine ourselves in challenging situations but remain masters of ourselves. That's a major appeal of all storytelling, from Hansel and Gretel to Aliens.  But it makes the kind of naturalistic acting you see in Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist all the more valuable for its rarity.

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