Film Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

by Jason LeRoy on December 21, 2011

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson

written by: Steven Zaillian

directed by: David Fincher

MPAA: Rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the coolest, edgiest mystery thriller the 1990s never produced. And since this is proving to be the decade of ’90s nostalgia trends, this perhaps explains some of the popularity of this series – even the name of which, Millennium, is a word that lost its excitement once Y2K passed. And in David Fincher’s potent English-language film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel, the ’90s vibe kicks in almost immediately: after a quick prologue, we are treated to the most visually audacious opening sequence Fincher has done since his biggest ’90s hits, Seven and Fight Club. And even though it looks cool, it can’t shake its ’90s-ness – right down to the typeface, which appears to have been lifted from The Craft, and the accompanying music, a reinvention of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (a ’70s song that trended in the ’90s) as arranged by ’90s alternative god Trent Reznor.

And then, of course, there is the quintessentially pre-millennial character of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, attempting to fill the big scary boots of Noomi Rapace’s unforgettable performances in the Swedish film adaptations). Lisbeth is a punky androgynous cyberhacker. And while the decades-old concept of “cyberhacking” is still very much relevant (in practice if not nomenclature), the character is greeted on all sides by people who seem absolutely mind-blown by what she does. Apparently Hackers was never released in Sweden; but Lisbeth sure managed to find a pirated copy and ape the Angelina Jolie character to the best of her ability. This guy knows what I’m talking about.

All of which leads me to my biggest – and really, only – gripe with this film: the source material is simply not worthy of David Fincher’s prodigious talents. He is one of our greatest living directors, and specifically one of the top mystery/thriller directors of all time. So while it makes sense that he would want to put his meticulous stamp on the most popular mystery novel of his generation, he can only do so much with the shortcomings of Larsson’s novel. Once we get past the striking opening credits, we still have to settle in for the long haul of the same story most of us know by now.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is an investigative journalist who has just been convicted of libel for a magazine story he wrote about the unsavory business practices of billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. But just when it looks like his career is over, Blomkvist is contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired CEO of a large corporation with ties to Wennerstrom. Having thoroughly vetted Blomkvist through an agency that employs Salander to run extensive background checks, Vanger wants him to help untangle a decades-old mystery within his much-estranged family (who come across like a murderous Swedish version of the Bluths): the disappearance and likely death of his teenage niece, Harriet, several decades ago.

Meanwhile, we watch Lisbeth as she shuttles about in her solitary existence, conducting private investigations while being forced into increasingly compromising situations by the legal guardian of her inheritance in exchange for money. This eventually leads to two of the most graphic and disturbing sequences of sexual violence we are likely to see in an American studio film any time in the near future; however, they are still a fair bit less explicit than their Swedish counterparts. Then, eventually, we get to the part that matters: Blomkvist is shown Lisbeth’s report on him and, impressed and a bit frightened by what she found, insists that she join him on the Vanger property to assist in his investigation.

I say “the part that matters” because ultimately, the relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth is the core of the story. Once the Harriet issue is resolved with relatively little fanfare (a crucial reveal is made in an almost laughably glib manner), the story still soldiers on for quite some time, continuing to build on their relationship and ultimately hanging its final scene upon it. This is problematic in the sense that the Blomkvist-Lisbeth romance is just very hard to believe. Even in its original context, it just felt like middle-aged male fantasizing on Larsson’s part. And it is especially difficult to reconcile Lisbeth’s very healthy, very hungry, hangup-free sex drive with the acts of horrifying sexual degradation that are visited upon her earlier in the story.

While Craig is perfectly adequate as Blomkvist and we get uniformly strong supporting performances from Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and particularly Joely Richardson, the film ultimately depends almost entirely on the performance of Rooney Mara for its success. Mara, who is perhaps best known for her brief but brilliant performance in the opening scene of Fincher’s The Social Network (as well as roles in Youth in Revolt and the recent Nightmare on Elm Street remake), boldly takes on this iconic character and brings to it a sensibility entirely her own. This is by no means an imitation of Rapace’s performance; perhaps the most significant difference is Mara’s instinct to bring moments of piercing softness and disarming vulnerability to Lisbeth. Where Rapace played her as an indomitable square-jawed warrior, Mara – who is much more physically diminutive – provides greater insight into the heartbroken young woman lurking beneath the armor. Mara is the Jennifer Hudson to Rapace’s Jennifer Holliday, providing a less ferocious but more emotionally resonant take on the same role.

Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a stunning achievement. The cinematography and art direction are impeccable, and the film feels remarkably coiled and tight despite its 158-minute running time. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross build on the Oscar-winning success of their Social Network score with another chillingly dissonant symphony of tones and chords; it is perhaps too similar to their earlier score to earn a second consecutive Oscar, but don’t count them out either. Fincher has turned Larsson’s novel into the best film it could possibly be, but its source prevents it from being great. Unlike The Social Network, in which Fincher took something as unlikely as the founding of Facebook and turned it into a timeless and transcendent mythology of youth and betrayal, this time he can’t quite outrun the limitations of his material.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now playing nationwide.

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