REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Sony/Columbia

(4/5 prairie dogs)

After reading all three books by Stieg Larsson and watching the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo twice, I had my doubts David Fincher had anything new to bring to the table with his own take on the best-seller. He has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt thanks to modern classics like The Social Network, Fight Club and Se7en, but the potential pitfalls were many and the margin for improvement was minimal.

I’m happy to report Fincher mostly succeeded. His approach to the thriller is cinematic, efficient and superbly acted.

In case you have been living under a rock for the last three years, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an engaging mystery that also serves as a feminist statement. The fact the story is rooted in a country as equalitarian as Sweden makes the acts of violence against women featured in the book (and later, the films) all the more poignant.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two of the most compelling characters created in the last decade, principled journalist Mikael Blomkvist and disenfranchised hacker Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist (Daniel Craig in the Fincher version) has fallen in disgrace after a tycoon exposé is revealed a sham. With time in his hands and a big hole in his bank account, Blomkvist agrees to work as an investigator for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an industrialist with a broken heart.

Over thirty years ago, Vanger’s niece Harriet disappeared from a family reunion. Because the event took place in an island and he has been taunted since, Henrik suspects Harriet has been murdered and one of his relatives is responsible.

In his investigation, Blomqvist is assisted by the rarest of birds. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a skilled computer hacker, a Bobby Fisher level genius, victim of heinous crimes and vengeful angel. Salander lacks the most basic social skills, but her standoffishness comes handy when dealing with sadist criminals who hide behind good manners.

Because of its runaway success, many of the Dragon Tattoo twists and turns have been spilled. It’s unfortunate, considering Blomqvist’s inquiry is a joy to follow. Hardcore fans will notice screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) eliminated some superfluous characters and blended others, two of them, pivotal. Surprisingly, they are not to be missed. Also gone is Blomkvist promiscuity (a running joke through all three books) and most of Salander back story, by far the weakest link of the first novel and the saga Achilles’ heel. Zaillian injects some really dark humor and one-liners to the story that keep the grim proceedings more palatable.

Despite being over two and a half hours long, the film progresses swiftly. The cinematography is not that much different from the Swedish version, but seems enhanced. DOP Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) makes you feel the cold. Not only it looks gorgeous, every frame has a second intention. “Show, don’t tell” has a champion in Cronenweth.

Another homerun for Fincher comes from the performers. While Daniel Craig doesn’t have to stretch too far (his Blomkvist is a clumsier, warmer Bond), the supporting cast gives the film additional weight. Stellan Skarsgaard as the duplicitous Martin Vanger is the Dragon Tattoo MVP, and Yorick van Wageningen (so brilliant in Winter in Wartime) is the perfect blend of pervert and bureaucrat.

Then there is the matter of Lisbeth Salander. Considering how iconic Noomi Rapace’s work was in the Swedish version, it was a tall order for Rooney Mara to fill. She tries extremely hard, but doesn’t make the role her own. While Rapace made Lisbeth vulnerability and vigilantism two sides of the same coin, Mara’s version lacks the same consistency. Her Salander is too withdrawn to jump into action at a moment notice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkable effort to cater to an adult audience with a quality product. Here is hoping we don’t have to wait for the sequel for another of the kind.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.

21 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

  1. I’m not a fan of David Fincher, but I’ll give the man credit for this much: he’s come a long way since Alien 3.

  2. Overly pierced ( nostril hoops? really ),/ tatted women, ( images of death, and sparrows?) don’t turn me on,( you have serious issues going about yer life, ,just short of being a cutter, ,something chickee I don’t need to deal with ), but hopefully the motion picture is a good representation of the book.

  3. Really Ron, out of that entire story your most pressing concern is that she “doesn’t turn you on”?

  4. Fincher is at the very least, interesting. “Alien 3” is not entirely his fault, the studio took it from his hands and recut it. The original script was quite audacious, but not what you would call blockbuster material.

  5. I agree. “Blockbustre” is not the first word that comes to mind. “Big-budget flop” would be more accurate.
    Still, the circumstances notwithstanding, the biggest problem with Alien 3 was that David Fincher is no James Cameron, or even Ridley Scott, for that matter.
    What did you think of Ebert’s assessment of Dragon Tattoo?

  6. Roger Ebert’s bottom line on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo:

    “This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.”

  7. The clear consensus among the reviews I’ve read so far is that the only good thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the performance of the hard-working Rooney Mara.

  8. Christopher Plummer, quoted in The New York Times: ““David Fincher, I’ve learned an enormous amount from him. Mostly that there are so many different ways of doing something, that you can do each of a hundred takes and interpret it different ways. I’m much more relaxed about that now at my age, because I have enough technique.”

  9. I just got back from Dragon Tattoo. That was a story tailor-made for David Fincher – gruesome unsolved murders and a fair portion of the running time devoted to people studying old photographs. At moments it reminded me of Se7en. Or maybe the movie is a strange dream that Zodiac had one night.

    While Jorge is spot-on about Skarsgaard and van Wageningen, I’m going to disagree with his assessment of Rooney Mara. She’s as good as people are saying. I’m not sure that I have the proper words to describe how completely she vanishes into Lisbeth Salander, but vanish she does. In part, I think, this is because Zaillian and Fincher give her a bit more emotional depth and a stronger relationship with Daniel Craig’s character, but it’s Mara who does the heavy lifting. If anything, her subtlety exposes the limits of Rapace’s interpretation of the character. I actually understood Salander’s motivations and feeling for Blomkvist in this film, even if I wasn’t sure that the storyline quite worked. If you doubt my praise, take a look at the opening scene of The Social Network, where Mara plays Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend. It’s hard to believe that the roles are played by the same person.

  10. “It’s hard to believe that the roles are played by the same person.”

    It’s called acting, Aidan.

  11. #3 I don’t read movie reviews, or watch trailers. Reviews are too objective, as the writers taste, may not necessarily reflect my own.
    Besides getting movies from the RPL for free,is the best way to watch ’em.

  12. Many would argue that reviews aren’t objective enough.
    It’s the subjective ones that cause the problems.

  13. Yikes! Richard Lawson, for one, was not impressed. On the Atlantic Wire, he writes:

    “… ultimately this really is an episode of Cold Case. It’s that slight, it’s that inconsequential. All the assured, dark filmmaking is great and all, but it’s built on such a rickety, forgettable foundation.”

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