REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 158 minutes | Release Date: December 20th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): David Fincher
Writer(s): Steven Zaillian / Stieg Larsson (novel)

“It’s how we’re taught about strangers”

If Stieg Larsson had lived long enough to see his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo become an international sensation worthy of two cinematic adaptations in less than two years, I wonder which he would have approved of more. It’s easy to disregard David Fincher‘s remake as nothing more than an Americanized version of a top-notch mystery thriller already wowing audiences across the globe and much harder to praise it alongside its predecessor. While I’ll admit to finding the telepathic translation device turning everything we need to know into English while leaving the rest in Swedish was annoying—why couldn’t Steve Zaillian have changed the setting along with his many other plot tweaks, I don’t know—there is something to be said about watching actors perform without needing to speed read as well. Should we forgive Hollywood for remaking a foreign film that already found an audience despite the language barrier? No, but it doesn’t mean the work is any less great.

What people grab a hold of in this story is the intricate murder mystery four decades in the making at its core. With imperfect characters like a libeled journalist and a psychologically disturbed private detective/hacker set to be our protagonists searching for vile heathens while also battling their own demons, the fact not one person is someone we can call a role model is somewhat alluring. We’re thrust into a world of darkness whose rabbit hole proves much deeper than expected, loving that feeling of dread and the sequences begging us to close our eyes. It’s the kind of subject matter you conjure up when thinking about Fincher’s filmography and composer Trent Reznor‘s industrial beats—not The Social Network. So, while I enjoyed Män som hatar kvinnor greatly, I still found myself intrigued by what an auteur like the one behind such films as Se7en and Fight Club could bring to the table.

We witness his vision very early through a mesmerizing credit sequence of black oil thick as tar pouring down upon Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as fire burns, electrical wires coil, and the hardened shells of humanity shatter into pieces while Karen O screams her best Robert Plant. It’s a jarring sight almost wasted by cutting directly into Mikael Blomkvist’s (Daniel Craig) dejection on rainy courthouse steps and in the magazine’s office for which he works. Pumped up with adrenaline bleeding from our eyes and ears, the transition’s abruptness is most likely intentional but its discordant connection only serves as the first of many full stops on this train needing a fast pace. Slowing down does allow us to breath and learn of Blomkvist’s legal troubles, Lisbeth’s woes as ward of the state, and the unsolved case of a girl’s disappearance Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) has been searching to close half his life. So not all is lost.

Serving to introduce the two main characters that continue their journey together for two more films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo finds most of its time delving into what happened to Harriet Vanger. A sixteen-year old girl out with friends at a parade, something made her come back home, desire a private conversation with her uncle Henrik, and vanish while the rest of their island abode went down to the bridge to help at a massive car crash. She couldn’t have swum across without being caught, nor could she have walked past a litany of police officers. The only explanation was a grisly hypothesis that someone in the family murdered her and disposed of the body before anyone noticed her absence at dinner. Invigorated to find the truth through guilt in not having spoken with her when asked, it’s the gall of the murderer sending him Christmas gifts as though from Harriet each year that makes Henrik hire Blomkvist in hopes his fresh pair of eyes could find something new.

Only one piece to the investigative team, Craig’s Blomkvist is effective in portraying the intrigue and drive for answers as the Vanger family’s secrets are revealed through great turns by Stellan Skarsgård, Geraldine James, and others. But his troubles are slight when compared to the young woman of the title. A businessman and writer with a taste for mystery, Blomkvist is still just an adulterous absentee father constantly looking for an excuse to take shirk personal responsibilities. Lisbeth Salander on the other hand is a much more complicated beast soon discovered after her guardian suffers a stroke leaving her in the hands of a man of sickening proclivities and abusive malice named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen continuing his streak of despicable roles after Winter in Wartime). One more in a long line of bastards beginning with her father, we watch as this brutish authoritarian ravages his ward to oblivion. So tortured that being a victim of rape can actually free her, Lisbeth is like no other.

A role made famous by Noomi Rapace‘s fearlessness in the Swedish adaptation, Rooney Mara’s English-language counterpart doesn’t fall too far behind in terms of authenticity. Pierced, tattooed, and forever scowling with eyes that could bring even the strongest man to his knees in fear, this young woman is just the breath of fresh air this genre needs. Psychologically vulnerable, unable to socially interact, and never one to make attachments, she illegally acquires information by wandering the streets on her motorcycle and trolls local bars for whomever is willing to partake in some after hours fun. It isn’t until Blomkvist asks for her help without wanting anything in return that she thaws her icy shell enough to project what tiny semblance of humanity she can muster when not ignoring niceties like a ‘hello’ or neglecting superfluity for the unemotional facts. An unlikely match, their work ethic unite them as well as their heightened desires in the face of solving their high-risk puzzles.

To say too much about Harriet’s case would ruin the mystery Larsson has tried to keep secret. And frankly that aspect—while captivating until its exposition-heavy reveal—is merely a way to bring Lisbeth and Blomkvist to life. It’s their interactions and the relationship built that will either stimulate your desire for more or leave you wanting much less. Definitely not for the faint at heart, Fincher pulls no punches and lets Mara run wild through a bleak landscape to show her strength through the pain of a life with more than its fair share. I feel Zaillian’s script detrimentally excises a lot of her backstory and goes overboard in its multiple logical ending points that culminate in a sequence of fake identity explained by one static image in the original, but I guess he had to do something after removing Blomkvist’s jail time and shifting focus back to Lisbeth. But besides plot changes like those and the lingering memory of seeing it all before, one can’t deny Larsson his posthumous success. There’s enough in both adaptations to make him very proud.

[1] Rooney Mara stars in Columbia Pictures’ ‘THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO,’ also starring Daniel Craig. Photo by Baldur Bragason. © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Daniel Craig stars in Columbia Pictures’ “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO,” also starring Rooney Mara. PHOTO BY: Baldur Bragason © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Rooney Mara, left, and Yorick van Wageningen star in Columbia Pictures’ ‘THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO,’ also starring Daniel Craig. Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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