Confidently Underselling "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:" A READING

 

My bad!   I hijacked the promised “trailer reading” of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO for a disquisition on the temporal quality of trailer reception and the typical “quantity” of trailer consumption.  (See my previous post.)

 

In this post, I’d like to offer a reading of the “International” trailer for David Fincher’s remake of the first volume in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, a recent global sensation for book readers and movie goers alike.

 

In my previous post, I complained of being overwhelmed by the density of visual content.  Having had the chance to watch the trailer a half dozen times or more, I now feel capable of describing how the story and the promotion are articulated in this 1:57 trailer.

 

We begin with the P.O.V. of protagonist and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he turns up an estate driveway, approaching an imposing private residence. Henrik Vanger, (Christopher Plummer) speaks in voice over, explaining the job for which he has hired Mikael.  He wants Mikael to investigate the rich, greedy, detestable, multi-generational family of which he is the patriarch.  In terms of trailer structure, this is ACT I,  “the task.”

 

Vanger wishes to know who killed his daughter, Harriet, 40 years previous. All he knows of the identity of the psychopath is that it had to have been a relative, someone, indeed, who is still scheming to drive him mad to this very day.   I call this act, or movement of the trailer, the “context” or situation.  In it, Vanger’s motives are explained and the stakes are established.

 

In the next 30 seconds, roughly from :30 – 1:00, three characters are presented:  The killer, whose psychological warfare against Vanger is described; Mikael, who’s wariness to take the job is explained.  (A high-profile muck-raker, he was “leaked” false information which he published, only to lose his journalistic credibility and his savings.) Lastly, and at greatest length, Lisbeth, the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is described, exhibited and shown interacting with her state-appointed guardian.  All three portrayals establish her oddity, her alienation from the system and norms of feminine beauty/appearance, as well as her fierce independence.

 

At about 1:01, Mikael asks Lisbeth to partner with him in the investigation and bring her extraordinary digital analytical skills to bear.  (Her introduction/presentation into the trailer was prompted by Mikael’s V.O. claim that he would need a research assistant.)  He seeks to motivate her by explaining the object of their search:  a killer of women.

 

From 1:05 to 1:21, scenes from their investigation and working relationship are shown, as the editing speed increases and the music cues indicate rising tension.

After 1:22, their investigation continues though now it is clear that they are meeting with resistance: physical danger, psychological threat and the emotional challenges of a very old, very ugly case.   Images of gunfire, flight, fire, additional victims, etc., are shown beneath voice over by Lisbeth about her discoveries and further details from Henrik about Harriet’s murder.

 

At 1:43, the pace accelerates even more, as graphic cards inform the viewer that this movie derives “FROM THE / INTERNATIONAL /BEST-SELLING/ TRILOGY.”  A final montage of images—cut several per second, almost to the point of subliminality—concludes in a shot of Lisbeth from behind, riding aggressively on her motorcycle through a tunnel, dressed in her habitual black, before a final freeze frame shot of her, head-on and helmeted, face slightly angled, her skin pale, eyebrowless and pierced, her visage overexposed and alien, staring at the viewer.   This is what a girl with a dragon tattoo looks like: fearsome, freakish, dangerous, unfamiliar and curious.

 

Like the images over which it flows, the music begins slowly and soberly, with a few key strokes of the piano, to which electronic/synthetic instrumentation and rhythm are joined.  Then a muted, muffled helicopter sound alights on the track, followed by animal roars or human screams, distorted and echoing, crescendoing toward the final burst of images and emotion, ultimately dissolving in the final image of Lisbeth on her motorcycle, fading away as does her face from the screen.

 

As far as editing pace goes, this trailer is a straightforward build. It is never exactly slow or indulgent, but the shot lengths decrease as the cutting speed increases.  I counted well over 120 distinct shots, or one per minute, although the last 30 seconds is dense with visual information, almost to the point of unintelligibility.

 

As befits its subject matter—an investigation into a mystery—the trailer delivers multiple shots of its protagonists looking, reading, noticing, pointing, searching, snooping, poking through, and stealing—but also, in turn being watched, assaulted and chased.   This is in no way surprising and visually overdetermines the diegetic dialogue which explains the context and the conflict.  The trailer is organic, motivated and neither experimental in approach nor confusing stylistically.  It is, however, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, dense.  It also, appropriately, bears the signature—in terms of editing, color palette, and tone—of its director, Mr. Fincher, a star-director with a loyal following and zealous fans.

 

The only moment in the trailer that seems forced is in the presentation of characters where Mikael explains his new-found caution in his work, then in the next breath delivers the non-sequitur, “I need a research assistant.”   To the casual movie-goer and trailer consumer, this unmotivated transition would not, perhaps, register amid all the other information and plot being presented.  But having watched it repeatedly and with my pause button at the ready, I found it inelegant and clunky, unlike the compelling (albeit rapid) visual storytelling and diegetic voice over.

 

In appealing to audiences, this trailer bypasses its three well known stars (actors Craig & Plummer and director, Fincher) to instead focus on the unsolved mystery that provokes the action.   Whereas most trailers try to establish a point of identification, this one goes out of its way to emphasize the unconventional, foreign, even unlikable qualities of Lisbeth and the Vanger clan.  Rather, this preview presents its protagonists as curiosities, objects of interest we need to know as the price of participating in the “international, best-selling trilogy” with which we’re assumed to be familiar.  There are no taglines nor calls to action.   It is an understated approach, relying on buzz for the remake and acquaintance with the global literary sensation of Mr. Larsson’s dark, violent and erotic Swedish thrillers.

 

Through its mise-en-scene, editing and visual presentation, the trailer makes plain the generic pleasures it has to offer those fans who like action, violence, gore and terror, with or without a happy ending, since the preview concludes without resolving that issue.

 

All in all, this is a piece of movie marketing confident in the quality and appeal of its feature, certain that its target audience is already sufficiently aware of the film it “previews” to appreciate this short film for its visual artistry and its rare and refreshing avoidance of the hard sell.

 
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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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