Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011): A Review

In Film, Reviews on December 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm

by Matt Smith

I don’t necessarily always do this, but: Spoilers Ahead. In this review I extensively discuss key plot points, character traits and much much more, including the altered ending. If you are one of the five people left on the planet who has not read the novels or seen the original Swedish-language adaptations, you are hereby forewarned. For the rest of you, read on.

It’s a testament to Stieg Larsson’s storytelling capability that a new film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the multi-million copy bestseller that has taken the world by storm over the past couple of years, still seems fresh and exciting, and most importantly, not merely like a retread of that old familiar material. The story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist’s investigation into the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the beloved niece of millionaire industrialist Henrik Vanger, is well known by now. The twists and turns of the plot, the richly drawn and morally complex characters, and the emotional roller coaster of vengeance and the satisfying feeling that comes at the end of any great work of whodunit fiction, however, is still there to enrapture an audience, and leave us wanting more. The promise of a posthumously discovered fourth book in Larsson’s series (presumed to be the fifth of six planned novels featuring the characters) is just one more instance of proof that the story has a rabid fan base that can be quite insatiable. I count myself in that lot. Larsson’s books represent that rare instance when truly great novels cross over into popular culture, and though the result may be that a lot of people who are not so versed in the traditions of various genres now strut around like the rooster in a hen house, that does not stop the books from being what they are: infallibly entertaining. They are one of the great storytelling feats of our time.

But the first book is by far the strongest. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a multilayered mystery novel of the first order, and because its story is self contained (unlike the sequels, which are sprawling and unwieldy, and possibly unadaptable in any context that could convey their real beauty, as evidenced by the Swedish film adaptations), it is ideal for transference to the big screen.

In 2009 the entire series was adapted in Sweden, with extended versions of the films being shown on television in a mini-series format. The first film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was directed by Neils Arden Oplev, who did an excellent job. The film was as entertaining and thrilling as the books, and expertly crafted. The film also had the good fortune of having Noomi Rapace, an actress not known outside of Sweden, who would play Lisbeth Salander. She was Salander, end of story. In fact, Rapace was so good in the role that I was skeptical that anyone else could pull it off. And though the second and third films (directed by Daniel Alfredson) were a slight disappointment, if only because they couldn’t maintain the thrilling heights of Tattoo with such a complex and unwieldy story, her performance was flawless, and the first film was one of the best films of the year.

Which brings us to the American film version, with a big budget, big stars, and a major director, hot on the heels of the Swedish film’s release a mere year and a half ago in the U.S. David Fincher’s direction has been rightly described as cold and distant, removed from the emotion of the subject just enough so the audience can examine it, even when dealing with subject matter which does not necessarily require such an approach. Here, I am pleased to report, that this style is much appreciated, giving some of the investigative sequences more of the feel of a procedural. Appropriate, since Fincher has directed the finest example of that genre in the past decade: Zodiac. But The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is not a rehash of his previous work, as I feared it might seem when I initially heard he was taking on the project. “Oh, great, Fincher’s gonna go make a dark serial killer picture again now that he got his ‘prestige projects’ out of the way.” Wrong wrong wrong wrong.

What the intervening films between 2007’s Zodiac and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo have apparently done for him is help him understand how to shoot emotional characters within his style. For all the flaws I personally found in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, at least they were distinguished by the audience’s ability to get into the characters a little more. In Zodiac we feel the fear of Robert Graysmith’s journey into the basement of a strange house as he searches for the killer in the same objective way as the barrage of information has been laid out before us, but in The Social Network we feel some of the anger coming from Mark Zuckerberg in the confrontations with the plaintiffs over their lawsuit because we have been given scenes which develop that anger, the outrage becomes a real emotion. The difference is slight, but it’s there.

The emotions in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are actually so well developed that it becomes the most striking divergence from the novel. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is still the same old damaged goods we get in the books, pierced and tatted, all leather and black and chrome, but her relationship with Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) gets a much-needed injection of emotion and longing after so many iterations in the past couple of years. It doesn’t transform the character of Salander in any significant way as much as rework the dynamic of Lisbeth’s work/love affair with Mikael, and not even that noticeably. In actuality it’s a small change, and it adds a layer of emotional understanding to the character–a warrior fighting against the men who have held her back her whole life, in politics and personal endeavors–making Lisbeth’s turn toward Blomkvist human and relatable. He is, after all, one of the only men in her life that has not passed some sort of unfair judgement on her. Blomkvist is not her knight in shining armor, though the ending does let us know that Lisbeth has made some sort of breakthrough with him and the final scene is just as crushing for her emotionally as her rape at the hands of Bjurman, if only because she had finally let someone in a bit, and that had now gone to pieces.

Rooney Mara fully inhabits the role of Salander, and there was no constant thought in my mind about Rapace’s fantastic performance. I can fairly say that she gave her all, and I was willing to take it in. Mara is, simply put, breathtaking. And different in small ways, which seems to be the theme for this adaptation. Her attitude is more New York punk than Scandinavian in origin, and maybe that will bug people, but the nice touches of this slight intangible change in her attitude are manifest on screen in her dress, body language and the more aggressive tattoos and the real-life piercings Mara got for the role. One of her t-shirts reads “Fuck you you fucking fucks,” which has been a favorite saying of mine for years. Asperger’s aside, Lisbeth is the punk I think we have in all of us, and the moral hacker and attacker we wish we all had in there as well. I think the New York punk attitude shift actually affects the whole film, with even the film’s aesthetics reflecting the harsher attitude toward the men who hate women that the novel is so amazingly deft at conveying, but due to some restraint on the part of Oplev and the Swedish producers, had been played down a bit in the original. This is not to say that the treatment of Lisbeth at the hands of Bjurman or the outrage at the serial killer, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), was not conveyed, but that Fincher is willing to let the darker impulses of the story come to the fore much like Larsson was. The books, and now this film version of them, do not shy away from the ugly underbelly of its content. In many ways it’s now a real shame that the book wasn’t published in English under its original title.

When Blomkvist and Salander finally get together to work on the investigation, I was quickly reminded of how perfect Fincher is for this type of film. In the key scene between them as far as I’m concerned, Blomkvist pitches the idea to Lisbeth, and she is at first hesitant, unsure of his intentions with her, and given her past with male authority figures, this is not surprising. But he plays it cool, and explains everything methodically, which is exactly what she understands and can relate to, and then very bluntly tells her, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” The incensed rage each character has at the crimes committed over the past forty years by this killer is what draws them together, and is the cue to Lisbeth that Blomkvist can be trusted, at least on the level of assisting him in his investigation if nothing else. She knows he’s a womanizer because she did his background check for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), but she also knows that he has a great moral character as well, and has been in the midst of a struggle with a corporate magnate engaged in all manner of illegal activities for the past year or so. Blomkvist and Salander are both anti-bullies, anti-evil, anti-corruption.

Their sexual relationship is of some concern to several reviewers, and rightly so. Here you have a devout feminist in author Larsson weaving a yarn about two anti-woman-hating individuals who stand up against the objectification of women, but who still fulfill standard male sexual fantasies. Blomkvist is an exceptional lover, and Salander willingly succumbs to his charms once he’s broken through her defenses. And did I mention that she’s at least bi-sexual? I prefer to think of it, however, in much the same way Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillan present it. Salander is aggressive in her choice to sleep with Blomkvist, and she doesn’t just jump right in on it. No matter how much lurid sexual content we are given involving her, Lisbeth’s relationship with Mikael has an organic feel to it at least, and, owing a bit to the modification of their involvement with one another, is realistic because Blomkvist is not really a womanizer. If anything he has been in a stable relationship with his editor and lover (and married woman) Erika Berger (Robin Wright) for some time, with the complete blessing of her husband, who thankfully never shows up in the film versions. But I digress.

One final thing that this film gets right is its look and feel. The focus of the story is on the men who hate women, and the righteous vengeance Salander and Blomkvist take on them. It opens with Henrik Vanger receiving the latest pressed flower from the person he believes is Harriet’s killer, and immediately cuts to an oil-slick and pitch black opening title sequence over which the much-publicized and lauded (and fantastic) cover of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” by Trent Reznor and Karen O is played. The song is as much a trademark of Fincher’s film version as the nudity on the film’s promotional materials. It’s a harsher, darker, and sleeker (visually) world than we’ve seen before. While the titles are a bit too reminiscent of a Bond opening for their own good,

As with Zodiac, Fincher shows he is comfortable handling vast amounts of story information, and very little actually gets left out. An impressive feat that is also pulled off due to his collaboration with Steven Zaillan, a screenwriter who is usually quite adept at synthesizing elaborate literary narratives into a manageable tangle of plot threads and believable characterizations. But this is not to sidestep Fincher’s interests in the area of the procedural genre, particularly its methodical and antiseptic presentation of facts, which has pervaded his work from Seven thru The Social Network, which is as much a procedural as anything else he’s ever directed. The complex nature of Larsson’s material requires a director fully capable of taking something and running with it, because the final third of the story comes together fast, and a lot of information must be conveyed very quickly.

The changed ending will have fans talking. Lisbeth, after playing chess with her former state-appointed advocate, who suffers a stroke early on, tells him that she has “made a friend,” and she is “happy,” both of which are not statements one would previously imagined Salander uttering, but which make perfect sense within the context of the film Fincher has made. She then goes out and purchases a leather jacket for him, similar to one that she has seen him wearing in a photograph when he was younger. When she arrives to the Millenium magazine offices to deliver it to him, she sees him walk out and put his arm around Berger, and they get into a taxi together. Lisbeth throws the wrapped jacket into the garbage, gets back on her bike, and rides off. Her new friend, the source of her newfound happiness, has betrayed her like everyone else. I like this ending because it more thoroughly justifies the coming animosity she exhibits toward Mikael at the beginning of the coming sequels. Plus, it’s such a subtle change that it shouldn’t really bother anyone anyway.

In many ways The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is exactly what I wanted, but it’s difficult to view objectively because I passionately love the source material so much. The Salander/Blomkvist crusade is one of the more amazing literary creations in recent memory, and it should go without saying that it works well on the screen. But that love does not deny the facts: I’ve seen this movie before. No matter how expertly directed, acted, and entertaining it is, there remains a sense that we are simply going through the motions. Still, I highly recommend it, and love Mara in the role of Salander because she really does take it to a different place than Rapace’s interpretation, which would have been difficult to top if played exactly the same and come off more as caricature.

4 out of 5 stars

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