Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig search for a killer of women in the new adaptation of Stieg Larsson's brutal thriller.

The phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has baffled me for a couple of years now. I saw the original Swedish film adaptation of the first installment back in early 2010, and was entertained, if not impressed: it was an above-average crime thriller, certainly, with an edge missing from most of its Hollywood counterparts and a protagonist that left an impression, to say the least. My curiosity piqued, I went back to the book, which was sweeping through airports and book clubs like Beanie Babies at the time; I made it through about 50 pages of Larsson’s thoroughly un-compelling prose before giving up in boredom.

Considering such clunky source material, I figured the Swedish movie was about as good as it was going to get, and was thus dismayed that someone apparently felt the need for an American remake. When it turned out that the remake would be helmed by crime thriller master David Fincher (he of “Se7en” and “Zodiac”) and carried by up-and-coming talent Rooney Mara, the film shot back on to my must-see list.

So where did all of this back-and-forth wind up in the end? Well, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” certainly makes for better film than it did literature. And while both versions have their merits, I must concede for once that I prefer the Hollywood remake. Fincher is simply a more confident filmmaker than Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev – while the 2009 film ultimately looked and felt like good television, Fincher’s aesthetic flair ensures a definitively cinematic experience.

So much is clear right from the opening credit sequence, which might be the most flagrantly audacious thing put on film in 2011. You might compare them to some of the more trippy James Bond title scenes, if James Bond was a cyber-punk hell demon here to eat your children. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the Oscar-winning composing duo of the score for “The Social Network,” are back working again with Fincher, and their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” featuring Karen O. sets the mood perfectly: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is going to be harsh, in-your-face, and unsettling. Fincher and Reznor/Ross is quickly turning into one of the most brilliant filmmaking matches ever, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one day we talk about them on the same level we do Hitchcock/Hermann or Spielberg/Williams – that’s how well these pieces suit each other.

With a LOT of information to get through (Stieg Larsson’s roots in journalism certainly showed in his overly intricate, some might say anal attention to detail), Fincher barrels through plot exposition with a sense of propulsion that would make a rocket scientist jealous. We are introduced to Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a thin stand-in for Larsson himself, a journalist who has just been disgraced in a libel lawsuit. In exceedingly short order, Blomkvist is hired by a mysterious old businessman, Henrik Vangar (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-old case of the disappearance and presumed murder of his young niece. The Vangar clan, a nasty bunch that includes drunkards, liars and ex-Nazis, has lived for years on an isolated island, so circumstances demand that the murder was a family affair. As Blomkvist tries to sift through the various grudges and complaints that govern this menacing brood, we are simultaneously introduced to our eponymous hero, Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker who was hired by the Vangars to do a background check on Blomkvist.

Salander is undoubtedly the reason Stieg Larsson’s books have been so successful – she is a creation that transcends the boilerplate “CSI” material that surrounds her, and honestly deserves better. She whirls through the story like one of the Furies of Greek mythology, an infernal goddess wreaking vengeance on behalf of abused women (the original Swedish title of Larsson’s book, we recall, actually translates to “Men Who Hate Women”). Bearing a slight figure and vulnerable past, Salander draws her strength from scathing intelligence and an overwhelming, smoldering fury. There is no doubt that she is a fantasy – the rape victim turned righteous avenger – but this is a powerful, and perhaps, for many people, a necessary fantasy.

Salander and Blomkvist don’t actually meet until about halfway through the film, when the beleaguered reporter calls the girl in as investigative reinforcement. But it’s not long before Salander has taken Blomkvist as her lover (and yes, that is definitely the direction of authority in this first encounter), and screenwriter Steven  Zaillian stumbles regarding where to take their relationship from there. Implying that Salander considers Blomkvist a bona fide love interest is obviously tempting for the way it humanizes the withdrawn, damaged girl, but it’s a stale contrivance. Considering how novel Salander feels otherwise,  it’s disappointing that Fincher and Zaillian felt the need for this dependence (the Swedish version was superior in its extremely perfunctory depiction of Blomkvist and Salander’s brief affair).

This is especially true since the defining trait of Fincher’s production, as opposed to the Swedish adaptation, is confidence. Daniel Craig, bringing perhaps a bit too much of his experience as James Bond to the role, makes for a remarkably accommodating Blomkvist. I don’t think most journalists would be so willing to continue on with such a job once bullets started flying and it became clear that they were sharing an isolated island with a serial killer (Michael Nyqvist was better at looking in-over-his-head in the original). Mara too plays Salander as slightly more poised than Noomi Rapace, although far from impervious. Mara’s performance is not only more welcome, it’s downright revelatory; her body language is impeccable, conveying Salander’s vulnerability in a lowered head and hunched shoulders, while fiery eyes tell a different story.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t much more than a genre exercise, and even as that there are some significant flaws: the mystery itself suffers from what I call Scooby Doo Syndrome – that is, the presence of only about two possible suspects, and attempts at red herrings that only make the culprit more obvious (also, *SPOILER ALERT THAT ISN’T A SPOILER IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MOVIE CASTING* one of those suspects is Stellan Skarsgard *END SPOILER*). There is also an insufferable amount of post-climax action, as the filmmakers seem to think (as Larsson did) that the audience actually cares what happens to Blomkvist after wrapping up the Vangar mystery. But Fincher has a panache for this kind of subject that remains a thrill to watch. Together with Reznor, Ross, and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher turns “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” into the moody, disquieting mystery it was always meant to be.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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