Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The (2011) (United States/Sweden, 2011)

December 20, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli

The dark seeps out of the screen like living thing, evidence that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is more than a paycheck to director David Fincher, who has improbably affixed his own imprint on a movie that comes weighted down with possibilities and expectations no filmmaker should have to contend with. Aided by a tightly-wrapped screenplay adapted from Stieg Larsson's global best-seller by Steven Zaillian, Fincher strips the material to its skeleton, then adds back the sinew and tissue to create something that is unmistakably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but in no way a carbon copy of the earlier Swedish movie or the book itself. This is what a movie adaptation should be: a film whose base narrative has its roots in the source material but whose soul can be identified through the images that unfold on screen.

When, in early 2010, Columbia Pictures announced their intention to film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the question that crossed many lips was, "Why?" After all, there was already a very good adaptation available, a 2009 Swedish production directed by Niels Arden Oplev with a star-making turn from Noomi Rapace. The intention to "remake" The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in English with an A-list star smacked of a cash-grab. Whatever the motivations, however, this interpretation of Larsson's story can stand proudly alongside the Swedish version. Both tell the same basic story, but there are enough differences - some subtle, some significant - that each can be enjoyed on its own terms. And, although Oplev will always have the distinction of being first, the strengths of Fincher's film reminds us that first is not always best.

Two key elements differentiate Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from Oplev's (and please don't misread this in any way as a denunciation of the Swedish interpretation, which was one of my top films of 2010). The first is the aesthetic. Filmed with a bigger budget and an auteur behind the camera, the 2011 movie is steeped in bleak, cold darkness. Everything, from the wintery setting to the gloomy interiors to the way scenes are photographed, enhances this aspect. Oplev's approach was more straightforward and not as assured. The second is the way the characters are represented. Fincher softens the edges and presents us with more emotionally complex individuals. Oplev emphasizes individual characteristics. Some of the characters in the 2009 movie are little more than caricatures (the vile and sadistic Bjurman being an example), but Fincher quests for ambiguity.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo represents Fincher's view of human nature (and, considering the darkness of his early films, that may be the case), it puts him alongside David Lynch as one who believes society breeds hidden rot and corruption. Those elements lie at the heart of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, despite occasional moments of macabre humor, Fincher allows them to fester. I am reminded of a line from I, Claudius: "Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out."

Zaillian's screenplay does a better job than the one penned by Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg in distilling Larssson's convoluted story into something movie audiences can absorb without a primer. In fairness to the writers of the Swedish version, their 180-minute original lost 28 minutes in the transition from TV mini-series to motion picture, and that's part of the reason for its occasionally erratic tone and discontinuities. Still, Zaillian has surgically altered Larsson's book for the screen by cutting, adding, and changing where necessary. The final result is a coherent, well-developed murder mystery that is neither rushed nor sluggish. It also keeps us waiting for a while for the two main characters to meet - that doesn't happen until the one-hour mark. Until that point, their stories are kept separate to better clarify their places in the overall narrative and to provide a stronger sense of who they are as individuals (rather than as a pair). Once they meet, they get to share the screen often enough to generate a peculiar frisson.

Larsson openly admitted to using the British detective story as the basis for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it shows in the movie's structure. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is brought to an island community in the north of Sweden to meet with retired millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Henrik would like Mikael to look into a 40-year old murder - a "cold case" that has haunted him for half his life. In 1966, Henrik's 16-year old grand-niece, Harriet, disappeared and was assumed murdered. Her body was never found but there was no evidence to indicate she had fled on her own. Her killer has gone undiscovered and unpunished but Henrik believes the circle of suspects to be small: his family (an assorted batch of oddballs, malcontents, and Nazis). After taking the job, Mikael recruits the asocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to be his assistant. Lisbeth, a whiz with gadgets and research, proves invaluable as Mikael's uncovering and interpretation of clues leads him deeper into the web of a venomous spider.

The central character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Mikael. He is accorded the most screen time and is established as a conventional protagonist. He is played by the best-known member of the cast, the reigning James Bond, Daniel Craig. But he is by no means the most interesting individual to grace the screen during the 158 minutes when the movie unfolds. That distinction belongs to Lisbeth Salander, the glum, emotionally stunted, technically brilliant goth whose tormented past is hidden beneath a costume of piercings and body art. Lisbeth is one of those characters who draws the audience's attention. As played by Rooney Mara, she's a girl-child trapped in a woman's body whose moments of rage are terrible to behold. She is both impenetrably cold and desperately fragile. Considered against the way Mara portrays Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace's memorable performance was almost conventional. Comparing the two is pointless - both are very good and very different - but Mara's Lisbeth is more sympathetic and, at times, more merciless.

Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also manages to make Mikael into more than a nondescript detective and straight man for Lisbeth's weird brilliance. (In this milieu, she's Holmes to his Watson.) Craig, aided by the screenplay, fleshes out Mikael. He is never as captivating as Lisbeth, but neither does he vanish into her shadow. The quasi-romantic relationship that develops between the two is more intriguing than the more traditional one in the Swedish movie. Here, their emotional investment is unequal, with Mikael viewing it as casual while Lisbeth, for perhaps the first time in her life, has discovered feelings between the sheets (or, more appropriately, on top of them).

The supporting cast includes well-known names like Christopher Plummer (as Henrik), Robin Wright (as Mikael's co-editor at Millennium magazine, Erika Berger), and Stellan Skarsgard (as Henrik's nephew, Martin), and less familiar ones like Steven Berkoff (as Henrik's lawyer, Frode) and Yorick van Wageningen (as the detestable Bjurman). Aside from Craig, there are no bona fide "stars" in the mix, but the cast is well-chosen. Everyone does an excellent job and Mara will undoubtedly receive as Oscar nomination for this brave, star-making turn.

It's somewhat astonishing that Fincher managed to secure an R-rating for a movie whose depictions of sexual sadism (including an anal rape) and consensual intercourse are so graphic. True to his word, the director does not pull punches and these scenes are as graphic (if not moreso) in the American production as in the Swedish one. One of the early trailers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo advertised this as being the "feel-bad movie of the season" and there's some truth to that. This is not the happiest experience one can have in a theater, but its cumulative power to provoke and entice is undeniable. And, as grim a view as it may have of humanity, it offers a compulsively watchable mystery/thriller whose standard elements - clues, red herrings, a limited number of suspects - adds to its entertainment quotient. This is a rare dark movie that can be enjoyed on a visceral level. There's plenty of suspense and tension in its DNA.

Those familiar with Larsson's work are aware that he finished two additional books about Mikael and Lisbeth before his death, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. These have both been filmed in Sweden. Fincher would like to get a crack at them as well, although the worldwide box office performance of this movie will go a long way toward deciding whether that happens. Personally, I would love to see what this creative team could do with those books (which are inferior to the first one). Regardless of what happens in the future, however, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can stand on its own as Fincher's valentine to goth girl power, detective stories, and the grotesqueness of the human heart.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The (2011) (United States/Sweden, 2011)

Run Time: 2:38
U.S. Release Date: 2011-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1