The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Review)

David Fincher’s American adaptation of the popular Swedish novels crawls under the skin and stays there–but for those that will be able to stomach it, it is an accomplished piece of filmmaking.

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

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

Human nature can be an ugly thing. The dark motives behind the most horrible things people can do to each other are not fun to look at, or think about. The cinematic examination of human nature is something of a forbidden curiosity; it’s not pleasant, but it’s fascinating. Such a taboo is the specialty of David Fincher, who honed his craft of portraying the dark heart with his crime film Seven. Fincher’s films are not fun to watch, but on a psychological level, they are horrifically fascinating. Now, Fincher is bringing his unique unnerving skill to his adaptation of the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books, with the first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The results, as expected, are very upsetting yet brilliantly crafted.

Having been successfully sued for libel by a shady and connected businessman, journalist and researcher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) retreats to save whatever dignity and assets he has left. Not a couple of days pass before Blomkvist is contacted by wealthy business owner Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Vanger intends to hire Blomkvist to do research into the disappearance of his beloved 16-year-old niece, Harriet, who disappeared over 40 years prior and had never been found. The mystery tortures Vanger and he desperately desires closure before he dies. He suspects someone within his own family, which itself is a perfect storm of the most deeply unpleasant people, of the abduction or murder. Blomkvist cannot resist Vanger’s tantalizing offer of double salary and all of the available information on Blomkvist’s original prey, the shady businessman.

As the mystery gets more convoluted, Blomkvist decides to hire an assistant. Setting his sights on a mysterious hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an unstable and severely asocial goth-clad young woman, Blomkvist manages to convince Salander to assist him in his investigation. Lisbeth Salander is extremely cold and all business, resisting any and all attempts at Blomkvist’s friendliness, having been severely sexually abused throughout her life and being made a ward of the state as a result of being labeled as mentally incompetent. Nonetheless, Salander’s fragile yet startlingly brilliant mind proves to be a major asset to Blomkvist. Small details of the event begin to work their way to the surface, and as Lisbeth starts to lower her barriers as she gets closer to Blomkvist, they start to find themselves under attack from whoever they are hunting.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the most well-developed characters of modern literature. Deeply antisocial and scarred yet incredibly sharp and gifted as a researcher, Salander is more interesting than any fictional character I’ve seen grace the page or screen in recent memory. Rooney Mara slips into the skin of Lisbeth with stunning thoroughness, delivering a truly impressive performance. As good as Daniel Craig is, Mara commanded every second of screen time that she appeared in, dominating the scene with a quiet mix of terror and menace. She’s a broken girl, but she tries not to appear so. Mara’s tiny little tweaks to her performance–inability to make eye contact if she’s not in control, shrinking away when Blomkvist gets near her, and eventual warming up to him to accept him as a close friend–really complete her as a character.

It’s not to draw attention away from the rest of the cast, which is extremely impressive. Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and so many more round out a large cast of power players and such a titanic blend of acting talent to portray a collection of clashing personalities does many favors to the film overall, and the tension from these fractured ties hangs thickly in the air.

That tension is increased a hundredfold by the Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross-composed soundtrack. The pair won an Oscar last year for their soundtrack to The Social Network, and this soundtrack is unmistakably better. It feels more like an actual component of the film, and some of the tracks in the movie’s soundtrack are so relentlessly tense, it causes intense unease and discomfort. The way the music blends seamlessly with the film makes it less of something you listen to, and more something that simply absorbs into the mind, crawling under the skin with the movie’s subject matter. It’s an achievement in film scoring that should not be ignored.

Little of this would be possible without David Fincher behind the camera. As the director of such crime landmarks as Seven and Zodiac, Fincher knows darkness. He drenches his film in a cold blue and grey hue for a relentless sense of dread permeated only occasionally by a hints of macabre humor. This is one of his slicker-looking productions to date; from the opening Bond-esque titles (set to a Trent Reznor and Karen O cover of Led Zepellin’s “Immigrant Song”) to some really great editing and camera movements, Fincher is elevating his dark style to an art form. Some of the ways he handles scenes are by turns enthralling and upsetting, and it’s impossible to look away from Fincher’s confident and brilliant direction.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not a remake, technically. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian referred to Stieg Larsson’s original novel instead, opting for a slightly more meticulous adherence to the source. However, as with any property for which there exists more than one adaptation, comparisons are inevitable. So, the big question weighing on the entire production: is it better than the Swedish movie? No, it’s not. Nor is it worse. It’s different. The script is more coherent and more neatly arranged, and Craig’s Blomkvist seems more confident than the weary character from the Swedish films. With a larger budget comes a nicer-looking film, and this one simply has a more expensive-looking sheen that differs from the grittier foreign version. I refuse to even compare the performances of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth here and Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film. They were both outstanding, and as Mara was not setting out to outdo her counterpart, putting her above or below another performance of the character is unfair. Both actresses perfectly convey the intense darkness and mental torture that this brilliant woman endures, and the violent reaction to the world around her as a result.

As you might be able to guess, this film is not happy. It plunges straight into the darkest depths of the human heart and almost never looks back. It’s unafraid to closely examine how utterly depraved some people can be. As such, I cannot readily recommend the movie to just anyone. The rape scene that occurs a ways into the film is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen in a mainstream film. It’s graphic, shocking (though not exploitative or pornographic), and it left me numb afterward with my palms sweaty. (Even the actor who plays the rapist, Yorick van Wageningen, has said in interviews that he was so upset after filming the scene that he spent an entire day in his trailer crying). Later on, Lisbeth gets her revenge on her aggressor in a scene which is almost more horrific that what had been done to her. The central theme of this series (originally titled Men Who Hate Women) is violence against females. If there is anything good to be said about these scenes, it is that they are finished by the halfway point. But unless you have a steel will and a remarkably strong stomach, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will unsettle you deeply, from the startling content to the very uneasy tension that permeates the entire film.

As a character study, however, the movie is outstanding. Every little element of the production is, in fact, outstanding. David Fincher has assembled a desperately tense mystery thriller that is at times almost unfairly enthralling. It commands every second of attention, and it does not pull a single punch with content. It’s a dark and unflinching look into the most depraved parts of human nature, a forbidden slice of dark cinema. Many times during The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I wanted to crawl into my own skin and hide from the evil on the screen. It’s not an easy movie to watch, and it’s certainly not fun. But as I said with my favorite revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil, a movie that gets to you so profoundly is a feat of filmmaking unto itself, and there is no denying that Fincher’s vision of the popular novel is a fine piece of craftsmanship, no matter how much you might want to look away. I feel that Stieg Larsson himself would be very proud.


Posted on December 23, 2011, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hey thanks for the excellent review of this outstanding film – it is well thought out, well organized, and makes many fine points. I appreciate your efforts.

    It is approaching 10:00 PM on the east coast of the USA. Re my own discussion about the film, actually a joint discussion of the film with Didion from the Feminema web blog, each of ours were published quite early this afternoon.

    At last count – there were 4 pieces on TGWTDT counting ours as two, plus yours, and one other. During this same time frame – there were about seven posts on WordPress about the release of the Prometheus trailer.

    Go figure.


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