Billy Gray

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

In Movie Reviews on December 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

There’s just one onscreen murder in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” David Fincher’s return to the serial killer genre. It’s bloodless, and committed by an innocent out of self-defense. Despite the film’s low body count, its nasty images outnumber pleasant ones. Its heroes smoke incessantly (in an inversion of recent rules limiting depictions of smoking to unsavory characters, the villain abstains), cheat on their spouses and putative orientations, and ruthlessly undermine the notion of its setting—Sweden—as the idyllic modern welfare state. There’s also an anal rape sequence co-starring the biggest dildo in Scandinavia en route to the indictment that latent Nazism and the decline of private industry account for Sweden’s manifest ills.

The Swedes will love it, because “Dragon Tattoo” is adapted from the first book in Steig Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium trilogy, texts so Swedish and of such immense popularity they’ve likely supplanted the Bible to become a post-foundational text in their secular native land. “Dragon Tattoo” introduces journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and cyberpunk security hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Forced into exile on libel charges, Blomkvist is summoned to the remote island of Hedestad by the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), ostensibly to ghostwrite his memoirs but really to determine who killed Vanger’s niece, Harriet, 40 years ago. Blomkvist recruits Salander, a perpetual victim of men, to join the case.

“Dragon Tattoo” is as taut as Fincher’s last movie, “The Social Network.” Like the 2009 Swedish-language film adaptation, it mercifully dispenses with much of the logy source material. Steven Zallian’s dialogue is terse—no time for Sorkinesque banter here—but pleasingly lucid and brisk, like Sorkin characters who’ve really got to catch the 4:30 train. And the procedural, all of it taking place under overcast or snowy skies, is leavened by the comically dysfunctional Vangers, co-chaired by Henrik’s nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgaard), and honey-coated flashbacks to the summer day that Harriet vanished.

Mara provides improbable humor with the facial ticks she lends Salander, whose eyes threaten to roll out of her head. Few actresses could do more with eyebrows that are faintly detectable, lost in the translucent, delicate and abundantly pierced map of Salander’s face. Salander, and to a lesser extent Mara, is a goth-gamine force, her arrival trumpeted by a spike in Trent Reznor’s otherwise too ambient industrial score. Craig does his craggy best with Mikael, a dud in the books who, rendered visually, at least excels as a model of sleek sweaters and winter trenches. The rights groups protesting an ancillary H&M clothing line they claim disrespects rape victims might take a break from their cause to ponder why the riveting enigma Lisbeth would lunge at the opportunity to take middle-aged lug Mikael to bed.

There’s not enough room to delve into the sprawling Vanger clan’s nasty quirks. Still, as Henrik, Christopher Plummer is a welcome, wry patriarch estranged from every relative but Martin. He’s a hint of warmth in the snowy tableau, and a necessary one given what could have been a clinically bleak pairing of Fincher, a precise technician often accused of icy remoteness, and the nihilistic source material. There’s just enough warmth to keep the film from being as stark as Martin’s minimalist glass home, with the screenplay’s zingers and assorted small touches—Lisbeth has a penchant for Happy Meals—lightening the mood. Still, Fincher does not let charm contend with rigor—missing is an equivalent to the heavenward aerial shot of the Golden Gate Bridge that elevated “Zodiac” above slick, probing police-psychological thriller.

From “Se7en” to “Fight Club” to “Panic Room”, the exacting Fincher’s preferred subjects are obsessives. The theme continues in “Dragon Tattoo,” although this time he only shows the obsessive good guys, with barely a glimpse of the reprobate’s compulsions until the end. Upon reveal, it’s a weak villain, one complimented as emblematic of the “new Sweden” early in the movie. That augurs poorly for the country, but does leave you queasily excited for the sequels.

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  1. It’s certainly worth seeing if you missed the original. If you saw it, however, there’s no way of unseeing it, and nothing in the new one to top it. Craig and Mara are great here though and Fincher brings so much more to this film like I was expecting too. Good review.

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