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Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Steven Zallian
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Goran Visnjic, Joely Richardson
Release Date: December 20, 2011

Crusading journalist and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just taken a major hit to his finances and reputation in a libel suit brought against him by billionaire businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). As he’s trying to figure out his next move while keeping his personal life afloat, Mikael is summoned by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to his palatial estate on an island in the Swedish countryside. The older gentleman offers the disgraced Blomkvist a golden opportunity that will replenish his bank account and restore his reputation as an honest reporter if he will use his investigative skills to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered four decades ago. Blomkvist is reluctant to take on such a task, but when Vanger also offers to give him the crucial evidence he needs to bring Wennerström to justice, the embattled writer accepts the job.

Mikael begins his probe into the unsolved case and the sordid backgrounds of Vanger and his questionable clan, which includes his great-nephew (and Harrier’s brother) Martin (Stellan Skarsgard) and niece Cecilia (Geraldine James). In his findings, he starts to suspect that Harriet may have been killed as part of a rash of serial murders aimed at women in the area. To aid in his investigation Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the computer hacker and surveillance expert who conducted an extenstive background check on him at the request of Henrik and his trusted lawyer Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), to act as his research assistant. Lisbeth soon proves herself to be more resourceful than anyone could anticipate, and as she and Mikael get closer to the truth about what really happened to Harriet, they uncover disturbing facts about the Vangers that certain members of this powerful family will go to horrifying lengths to keep secret.

One of the most talked-about films made this year, David Fincher‘s Americanized-to-a-point take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in the late Stieg Larsson‘s blockbuster novel trilogy, comes to theaters with many questions attached to it, and none of them pertain to the actual film. Larsson’s book was first adapted for the screen two years ago in an acclaimed film made in the author’s native Sweden and starring the lovely Noomi Rapace (soon to be seen in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) as Lisbeth Salander. The film was just starting to reach American shores when the deal was made for Fincher, hot off the critical and commercial success of last year’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, to direct a big-budget adaptation of the book. Because of the relative freshness of the Swedish film many of its admirers as well as fans of Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy (named for the magazine Mikael Blomkvist publishes) questioned the necessity of a Hollywood-backed version of the same tale so soon after. Since the source material is a popular novel, Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo can’t exactly be lumped in with the current remake trend that has consumed the minds and coffers of the major studios. Plus with the level of talent present in front of and behind the camera on this new take on Larsson’s epic there’s no reason why it can’t at the very least be given a chance to plead its case before a final verdict is rendered. All that remains is for Fincher’s movie to prove why its existence is justified.

Unfortunately outside of a few good performances, a wonderfully visceral music score, and some wintry visuals as bone-chillingly frigid as the hearts and souls of some of the story’s vital characters, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2011 resembles little more than a decent cover version of a song that was beautifully written and performed the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been in the “remakes suck” camp; after all, the 1982 version of The Thing remains my second favorite film of all time. There’s merit to any filmed version of a story provided the filmmakers have actually taken the time to leave their mark on their material rather than produce a handsomely-mounted carbon copy, which is sadly the case here. Director David Fincher has worked his trademark visual mastery on the story, creating a vibrant but emotionally hollow world where the darkest secrets of Sweden’s wealthy elite are free to play in the light while those who haven’t been ethically compromised are forced to lurk in the shadows, an aesthetic Fincher’s frequent collaborator Jeff Cronenweth (son of the late Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth) brilliantly conveys while shooting with high-tech Red cameras. Something I noticed in Donald Graham Burt‘s meticulously lived-in production design are the striking similarities between Lisbeth’s apartment and the cottage she and Mikael use in their investigation into the mystery of Harriet Vanger and the residences used by characters in past Fincher films; the dilapidated house used as a headquarters for Project Mayhem in Fight Club and Jodie Foster’s stylish New York brownstone apartment in Panic Room immediately come to mind.

Fincher does a fine job directing the film, but his presence isn’t as felt in Dragon Tattoo as it was in most of his earlier works, from Alien 3 to Fight Club. It’s like ever since Zodiac, the 2007 film that was the filmmaker’s first in five years at the time, we’re seeing the gradual development of a populist David Fincher. Is it possible that the same director who made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network would not have made Fight Club twelve years ago? I don’t think he’s been beaten down by the Hollywood machine, but I do think he’s become a willing cog in that machine. Nothing wrong with that at all. But for his latest feature, Fincher has continued to develop a less-intrusive style of shooting that served him well on his previous film, allowing the acting and story to take center stage. Outside of a bizarre opening credits sequence (scored to that cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” that was all over the film’s marketing campaign) that would fit nicely in a James Bond film directed by Kenneth Anger, Fincher keeps the directorial virtuosity that made his career in check. It makes for a fine directing job, but ultimately some fire in the belly would have melted the lead in Fincher’s ass.

The same can be said for the script by Steven Zallian, a writer whose appeal I understand but could never feed into. Zallian is the ideal writer for directors hungry for mainstream respectability because he writes nice, inoffensive, award-whoring dreck that makes studio heads sprout tentpole erections at Oscar time. In that respect he’s the perfect candidate to give what is essentially one of the finest examples of airport gift shop literature of the 21st century a big screen gloss that amps up its most lurid elements while simultaneously robbing the story of its edge and emotional core. Too often the script falls into cliche, which is understandable given that it’s supposed to be high trash, but anyone familiar with Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary will roll their eyes repeatedly.

Craig and Mara do what they can to fill the gaps in the narrative that would define their on-screen relationship, but matters are not helped at all by keeping the characters of Mikael and Lisbeth from first meeting until the movie is already halfway over. Having done the extensive background check on Blomkvist’s life, Lisbeth knows the man better than he probably knows himself and yet she never displays any interest in him beyond wanting to fuck his brains out on occasion. Even then she doesn’t seem very interested. I can’t fault the actors for that. Craig is fine as Mikael but he doesn’t engage much as a character; he has even less depth than James Bond and the actor’s customary aloofness makes Blomkvist an uninteresting cypher designed solely as an engine for the creaky plot. Mara fares better in the acting stakes, which is no surprise given that she has the best character in the story. Sometimes that character can be a bit much. Most times Lisbeth Salander is less a person than an unending collection of quirks and psychoses, the living embodiment of an amateurish first draft, but that still makes her more defined than Blomkvist. Mara’s searing performance cuts through the posturing and pointless theatrics to expose the lonely heart beating beneath her armor of leather and piercings.

The rest of the cast does what they can with the limited, exposition-heavy material. Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard are the stand-outs; Plummer, ever the professional, revels in making the most of a part far beneath his towering acting talent and he does it with warmth and a dark sense of humor at times. He should get a great deal of credit for even bothering to remember. Skarsgard plays another variation on the same potentially duplicitous character he gets cast in constantly. Besides Mara, the female characters are either window dressing or less important to the plot than most of the props. Robin Wright is mostly wasted, but Joely Richardson and Geraldine James acquit themselves well. Former 1980’s action flick villain Steven Berkoff, looking very much like Winston Churchill these days, does fine character work as Vanger’s faithful lawyer and Yorick van Wageningen is appropriately sleazy as Lisbeth’s depraved scumbag of a legal guardian.

The music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose collaboration on the music for Fincher’s The Social Network netted them an Oscar, is one of the few aspects of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I will not soon forget. It’s one of the best scores of the year, a powerful and haunting operetta that works even better when listened to on its own.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had as indifferent a reaction to a movie as I did with David Fincher’s interpretation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There’s a lot about the movie I enjoyed and when taken on its own, the film is very competently made with decent performances, good pacing, strong visuals, and a classic score. But it’s ultimately a piece of hackwork that reeks of paycheck opportunism, and given the talent involved this movie could have really been something unique. After all, The Godfather and Jaws were both also based on cheesy best-selling novels.

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