David Fincher proves that darkness and brutality transcend language barriers—as does excellent filmmaking—in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a new adaptation of the best-selling novel.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
(NOTE: This is a review solely of the 2011 adaptation of the novel. As I have not seen the original Swedish film or read the book, I will be judging the film solely on its own merits and not on its merits as an adaptation/remake.)
After being sued for libel by a corrupt industrial baron, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses his job, reputation and life savings. Shortly thereafter, he is contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), patriarch of the rich and insular Vanger family. For the past 40 years, Henrik has been searching for the killer of his niece Harriet. Under the guise of writing Henrik’s memoirs, Mikael begins investigating the Vanger family, eventually assisted by the brilliant but asocial hacker and investigator Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). As they delve deeper into the Vanger history, Mikael and Lisbeth quickly realize that there is much more going on than the death of a single teenage girl and find themselves in immediate danger.
When plans were announced to make an English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s critically-acclaimed and wildly best-selling Millennium trilogy, it made perfect sense to give the reins to the first film to David Fincher, a man whose best films involve societal loners fighting against the superficial veneer of civility in modern culture. Combined with the tight screenwriting of Steven Zallian, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a taut, tense and thoroughly engrossing mystery that grabs the viewer by the id and refuses to let go. Rough, unflinchingly brutal and at times captivatingly chaotic, it’s a twisting thriller that requires—and rewards—an attentive and intelligent viewer.
The distance between us.
From the opening credits, it’s clear that the film is pure, undistilled Fincher in the best ways. The film opens with a blistering, tearing cover of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, her voice screaming and writhing over Trent Reznor’s incendiary industrial beats while the screen is filled with what can best be described as an ink-and-oil James Bond credit sequence on acid. Fincher refuses to let the film do the thinking for the viewer, often cutting a scene off before the expected denouement or reveal and leaving quite a bit implied rather than expositioned. The images, as well as the characters, are often full of shadows, with all the flaws, wrinkles, cracks and bruises in place. This is a film about the cumulated effects of collective repression on the individual, and nobody in the film comes off as completely clean. There is no wasted space and no filler: every moment and frame deserves to be in the film. It’s amplified by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ atmospheric, brooding score, a collection of haunting strings and electronics that comes off as subconsciously unsettling.
Daniel Craig seems on paper to be a poor fit for Mikael. The man known primarily for being the world’s most celebrated secret agent doesn’t quite seem to be the best choice to play a worn-out, beaten-down journalist. However, Craig is more than up to the task. His physique has taken on a more middle-age look, still strong but obviously losing the battle of age. The distinctive crags in his chiseled face seem here like battle scars, and his piercing blue eyes seem to have lost their glimmer. His performance is fantastic. Mikael is a man resigned to being fate and society’s bitch, and it’s only through his investigation into Harriet’s death and his association with Lisbeth that he begins to find his fire again.
If knowledge is half the battle, Mikael is well-armed.
The supporting cast is huge, but also uniformly excellent. The Vanger family is dysfunctional to a level that defies description, a tangled web of distrust, lies and resentment. Both Stellan Skarsgård and Joley Richardson, as Martin and Anita Vanger respectively, effectively convey this the best. Both of them clearly have hidden layers and secrets, and both are quite adept at putting up a mask of amiability to distance themselves from anyone who might find them out. Both Skarsgård and Richardson give nuanced, magnetic performances, as does Christopher Plummer, whose warm smile never seems entirely genuine. Robin Wright disappears into the role of Erika Berger, Mikael’s editor and on-and-off mistress, and Yorick van Wageningen is thoroughly loathsome as Lisbeth’s slimy legal guardian.
But the film entirely belongs to Rooney Mara in a performance that is both quietly explosive and insidiously hypnotic. Cast from relative obscurity to play one of literature’s most recent female icons, she owns Lisbeth Salander completely. She’s captivating every moment she’s on screen, whether she’s poring through old business documents or chasing down the man who stole her laptop. Pierced, tattooed and dressed in black, Lisbeth is anti-sociality personified. She wields her attitude as a both a weapon and a shield in equal measures. A ward of the state since she tried to kill her father at age 12, to say that Lisbeth has anger management issues is putting it mildly. Even scarier than her anger, however, is her intelligence, her brain working at a level that’s almost impossible for the average human to comprehend. That she can find any kind of rapport with Mikael is amazing given her history, and it’s fascinating to watch the interplay between the two, which makes it all the more disappointing that it takes so long for their plots to intersect.
Wild and scarred.
The film is unquestionably brutal, as is appropriate for its material. The Vanger family contains more than their share of deviants, criminals, Nazis and other undesirables held together by only the thinnest sinews of false civility. The majority of the film takes place on their private island, a guarded microcosm that quickly unravels once Lisbeth arrives, her complete disregard for social niceties the equivalent of an cultural atomic bomb. Lisbeth herself is often violated by her legal guardian, who repeatedly rapes her in exchange for access to her own money in a scene that nearly surpasses the infamous lynchpin rape scene of Irreversible in its unvarnished severity. When Lisbeth takes revenge on her rapist, it’s difficult to feel like justice has been done since Lisbeth is just as destructive (if not more so) than her attacker. Both come off as sociopaths, and it’s a reminder that violence often begets violence, no matter how justified or necessary it might be. The film’s tagline, “Evil shall with evil be expelled,” is a Swedish proverb that more than perfectly sums up the mood of the film.
It’s not perfect by any sense. The film’s climax comes way too early, and there’s almost an entire act after what would normally be considered the resolution of the final conflict. That final act focuses mostly on Lisbeth, and Rooney Mara makes it all seem worthwhile, but it’s impossible to deny the dissipating energy. The cast is a tad unwieldy, as well, and at times it becomes difficult to keep track of all the supporting characters. The fact that most of the Vangers resemble an Aryan fantasia doesn’t help that fact, although it does add to the miasma of unease that permeates the Vangers’ island and, by extension, the film itself.
You’re in real danger when an explosion is only of minor concern.
An alluring film that examines the darkest parts of the human psyche in the most matter-of-fact ways, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a mesmerizing thriller anchored by a brilliant, revelatory performance by Rooney Mara. The final scenes make the viewer anxious to immediately watch the next installment, and David Fincher has made a film that stands on its own apart from its source material or previous adaptations. Although not entirely for the faint of heart, it’s a rewarding, cerebral film that’s destined to become a classic.
Rating: 9 out of 10 / A
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is the Boy with the Unicorn Tattoo.