June 2024

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


CAST: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Yorick van Wageningen


I’ll just get this out of the way right upfront. I have never seen the 2009 Swedish film adaptation of late author and journalist Stieg Larsson’s crime novel, which featured a much-praised performance by Noomi Rapace in the title role (nor have I read the book), so this review will not include any comparisons between the two versions, merely evaluate this one on its own merits. As it stands on its own, this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo succeeds as both a murder mystery and a character study and provides a darkly engrossing two and a half hours. Sensitive viewers be warned, however, there is darkness aplenty lurking around the edges of the frame, and at least one sequence that may be genuinely hard to watch.



While this adaptation is English-language, the cold, snowy Swedish setting is retained. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig), humiliated and strapped for cash after being sued for libel by a CEO he accused of corruption without being able to prove it, is brought to an isolated island community in the north of Sweden by retired millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who wants him to investigate a 40-year-old cold case that has haunted him for decades. In 1966, Henrik’s 16-year-old niece Harriet disappeared. While her body has never been found, nor any guilty party identified, Henrik is convinced she was murdered.  Henrik believes the circle of suspects consists of his own family—an assortment of unsavory characters—and wants Mikael to sniff the murderer out. Mikael is skeptical, but is unable to resist Henrik’s claims to be able to prove him right about the corrupt CEO—an old business colleague of his—and clear up his legal problems. Aided and abetted by Henrik’s lawyer Frode (Steven Berkoff) and nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), Mikael enlists the help of anti-social, heavily tattooed and pierced goth girl Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who grew up in the foster care system and is a brilliant computer whiz but difficult with people.  However, after a tense beginning, the odd couple starts to click as Mikael and Lisbeth, like an unorthodox Holmes and Watson, uncover a series of clues, and also fall into an affair which Mikael views casually, failing to realize Lisbeth’s deeper feelings.  Meanwhile, as their investigation dredges up decades of unsolved serial murders, the unknown killer, sensing his cold trail being exposed, may turn the hunters into the hunted.



As should come as no surprise, David Fincher leaves his own stylish mark on the material. The darkly hypnotic images that play over the opening credits are pure Fincher, and throughout the movie, the cold, snow-gripped Swedish landscape is vital to the tone. From the wintry setting to the gloomy interiors, everything feels steeped in a bleak darkness. That said, the movie is also entertaining and engaging and has moments of humor. One of the early trailers advertised it as “the feel bad movie of the season”. That exaggerates how unremittingly dark the movie is, in my opinion, but it’s also not the most uplifting experience to be had. The murder mystery is well-constructed, laying out a list of potential suspects, tossing out clues and red herrings, and challenging viewers to pay attention to pick up on the significance of the seemingly trivial details that can crack a case. The pace is deliberate and talky rather than action-oriented, but it’s not a movie where frequent trips to the restroom are recommended. There is a lot of detail thrown at us about the investigation to absorb and pay close attention to. There is a burst of action toward the end, but overall this is a more cerebral experience that doesn’t let you leave your brain at the door. The characters, especially Lisbeth, are emotionally complex and well-developed, and Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian avoid portraying the killer or even the loathsome sexual sadist Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) as caricatures. The killer, when finally unveiled, has a detailed backstory, and unlike some “surprise villains”, the actor doesn’t go into mouth-foaming mode as soon as he reveals himself. There is one scene, notorious for those familiar with the story, involving a depiction of anal rape more graphic than the one in Deliverance, which is disturbing to the point of being uncomfortable to watch. Some walked out on this scene in theaters, and it’s understandable why. Fincher pulls no punch, and the consensual sex scenes are equally frank.



The movie’s structure is a little unusual. Firstly, it takes over an hour until Mikael and Lisbeth meet, spending nearly the first half of the movie on parallel tracks. This allows us to see them both as well-developed individuals before they join forces and the investigation kicks into full gear. Secondly, the murder mystery is resolved with nearly half an hour to go, which is spent wrapping up loose ends and resolving a subplot. The killer’s identity doesn’t come as a great surprise, but there is a significant twist shortly after that’s more surprising.



Girl with the Dragon TattooDaniel Craig makes a sturdy lead, neither overplaying or underplaying Mikael nor ever trying to turn him into an action hero.  Mikael isn’t a tough guy and Lisbeth is no damsel in distress, and if anybody is coming to anybody’s rescue, it’s more likely to be her coming to his.  Mostly because he’s a far more average individual, Mikael doesn’t draw the camera’s attention with Lisbeth’s intensity, but nor does he disappear into her shadow. If Craig keeps slipping projects like this in between his outings as 007 (as he also did with the sci-fi Western Cowboys & Aliens opposite Harrison Ford), I suspect he won’t have the same problem with typecasting that made it difficult for Pierce Brosnan to have a substantial post-Bond career. Craig is more versatile, and Mikael Blomqvist is nothing like James Bond (except in his weakness for women). But while Craig is solid, few would dispute that the real show-stealing turn is from Rooney Mara, buried beneath tattoos, piercings, and goth makeup, as the ingenious, asocial, bisexual Lisbeth, a girl-child trapped in a woman’s body, both impenetrably aloof and delicately fragile, emotionally stunted by her abused past. Mara avoids making Lisbeth any kind of stereotype of either a “tough girl” or an abused victim cliché; she is a wholly original, three-dimensional character who can’t be pigeonholed, and the type who commands attention.  Fincher and Mara also don’t soften her edges.  Lisbeth is sympathetic (at least to a point), but she’s not to be crossed, and is capable of wreaking terrible vengeance that’s as brutal as what was dealt to her.  File her under “anti-heroine”.  Mara also bravely forges onward with not only full nudity, but displaying it in the movie’s most uncomfortable and disturbing scene.  It’s an edgy, unglamorous role, and Mara plays it with fearless conviction.



The supporting cast includes familiar faces like Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright (as Mikael’s editor and sometime lover), Joely Richardson (as an estranged member of the Vanger family), and Steven Berkoff. Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen plays the repulsive Bjurman, whose comeuppance at Lisbeth’s hands will doubtless satisfy many viewers still cringing from his earlier scene. There are small roles for Goran Visnjic, Embeth Davidtz, and Joel Kinnaman.



The weakest part of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the ending, which leaves things on an abrupt, open-ended, unresolved note that some will find unsatisfying, though it does have an effective emotional component and its open nature is perhaps inevitable considering this is part one of a trilogy (though whether Fincher forges onward with the next two books, which were previously adapted to film in Sweden, remains to be seen). In any event, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an adult, intelligent, and well-constructed murder mystery with well-developed characters for those who don’t object to some dark and disturbing material.



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