A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2011


2011, R, 158 mins.


Lisbeth Salander: Rooney Mara / Mikael Blomkvist: Daniel Craig / Henrik Vanger: Christopher Plummer / Martin Vanger: Stellan Skarsgard / Erika Berger: Robin Wright / Anita Vanger: Joely Richardson

Directed by David Fincher / Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Stieg Larsson

The original 2009 Swedish THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - directed by Niels Arden Oplev and based on the novel by the late author and journalist Stieg Larsson – was one of the most effective and memorable crime noir thrillers of its year.  It was evocatively stylish, impeccably acted, contained a fascinating murder mystery, and, most crucially, it introduced filmgoers to the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander, who was indeed a girl that did have a dragon tattoo.  As played in a performance of animalistic ferocity, raw nerve, and closely internalized vulnerability by the great Swedish-Icelandic actress Noomi Rapace, Salander deserved ranking as one of the most intriguing female protagonists in recent film history. 

She was young, bisexual, deceptively pretty under all of her heavy makeup and multiple facial piercings, and was disturbingly anti-social to the core.  She was an emotional predator at times and exhibited an untamed hostility towards those she did not like.  Yet, Lisbeth's façade as a grungy Goth chick that looked like she belonged in many a biker bar hid her true genius: she had an extraordinary ability to hack computers and was a maestro of research and deductive logic.  With her street wise toughness, cold and penetrating stare, willingness to enact vigilante justice on those that wronged her, and the social horrors that she had to endure, it’s not wonder why Lisbeth struck a chord with audience members.  As far as female characters go, she was about as empowered as they get. 

For as much reverence as I had for the 2009 Swedish film, a lavish budgeted Hollywood remake seemed inevitable.  In place of Oplev is Oscar nominated director David Fincher teamed with Oscar nominated screenwriter Steven Zaillian to re-tackle Larsson’s source material for North American consumption.  The new DRAGON TATTOO follows most of the storyline of the ’09 import, but where it really differs is in its look and cost (Fincher’s version has a much bigger bankroll behind it, not to mention that Fincher himself, as a cinematic visualist, is clearly Oplev’s superior).  Both films are long, although Fincher’s is longer by about ten minutes.  Both involve a decades-old family murder mystery that may or may not have involved one of the members acting as a perpetrator.  And, true to the first, Fincher’s incarnation hones in on the integral relationship between the New Age research methods of Salander and the more old school investigative approach of Mikael Blomkvist.  Thankfully, Fincher has not toned down the inherent nihilism, depravity, and overall darkness of the original.  This DRAGON TATTOO-redux is just as – if not more – bleak as the original. 

Again, the essentials of the storyline remain largely unchecked: We are introduced early on to disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) that, after being rocked by professional scandal, is offered a job that involves him going to a Northern Swedish island to meet with a retired millionaire named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer).  Vanger’s job proposal involves Mikael investigating the disappearance of his 16-year-old grand-niece, who he feels may have been murdered, seeing as her body has never been found and that ample evidence supports that she had no reason to disappear on her own.  As far as suspects go, Vanger seems strong in his belief that a member of his family is to blame, some of whom include former Nazis.  If Mikael  agrees to the job then he will be both monetarily rewarded quite handsomely and assisted by Vanger in perusing those that have previously discredited him.   

Mikael agrees to the task, but soon begins to realize that he may be in a bit over his head to tackle the case solo.  He manages to find himself teamed up with a misfit and the relentlessly hostile tempered Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who proves to be Mikael’s clear superior when it comes to anything computer related.  Lisbeth, however, has ample reasons for her anti-social behavior, especially when it comes to the venomous treatment she gets from her state appointed guardian (played with repellent ooze by Yorik van Wageningen), who puts her through social horrors that no woman should experience.  Nonetheless, Lisbeth and Mikael  manage to make a seemingly odd, but effective pair of sleuths, which allows them to uncover a web of clues and shocking revelations that changes the whole outlook of the case. 



Of course, Lisbeth remains the endlessly compelling focal point of the film, especially when it comes to the unspeakable ways she is treated by some in the narrative.  Fincher and Zaillian wisely understand that this is a character steeped in radical, almost militant female empowerment as she personally traverses from one hellishly grotesque predicament to another.  Lisbeth’s relationship to the older Mikael is also emphasized over just about everything else in the film, which also is the wise choice: they both go from horribly mismatched colleagues to a well-oiled investigative team and then rather awkwardly to lovers.  Like the Swedish TATTOO films, the essence of whether Lisbeth and Mikael’s relationship is based out of love or not is left curiously abstract.  Perhaps they just simply cling to one another at a troubling time when no one else would. 

I have written to the point of ad nauseam on how Noomi Rapace seemed utterly irreplaceable as Lisbeth, an assertion that I still maintain.  This places almost insurmountable pressures of the new Lisbeth, Rooney Mara, who certainly is a gifted young actress (who could forget her briefly stealing THE SOCIAL NETWORK away from everyone in its sly opening sequence).  Mara as Lisbeth certainly has a softer façade and is less intimidating as a presence as Rapace, who was borderline frightening at times.  Yet, Mara is so thanklessly up to the task of fully immersing herself within the totality of Lisbeth’s wounded psyche, her guarded mistrust of everyone, her internalized rage that can erupt at any moment, and her almost irrepressibly cold and untamed demeanor.  Her Lisbeth is just as tormented, haunted, and damaged as Rapace's.  Mara’s work definitely did not make me forget about Rapace’s superlative turn, but she is nonetheless just as fearlessly primal with her performance, which is sure to be Oscar nominated. 

The cast itself around Mara is splendidly assembled.  Plummer as Vanger is quietly commanding; Stellan Skarsgard does miracles with a decidedly tricky role; and Robin Wright is solid in her few scenes as Mikael’s on-again, off-again lover and journalistic colleague.  One casting misstep, however, that the film makes is with Mikael himself.  Michael Nyqvist played the role in the original and had a sort of everyman ordinariness about him, which made him that much more of an effective out-of-his-element foil to Lisbeth.  By comparison, this new version casts the granite bodied, self-assuredly charismatic, and dapper Daniel Craig, who at times plays Blomkvist with the composure and determination of 007.  Nyqvist seemed more fragile, more easily susceptible to endangerment, and less able to bail himself out without assistance.  Craig’s very stature works against the character.  That, and he seems to be the only actor that is not trying to pull off a Swedish dialect in any way shape or form.  All of the other actors do so gamely, but Craig’s Mikael sounds a bit too British to be taken seriously and convincingly as a Swede. 

The film has other rough patches as well, most specifically in the area of its conclusion: the film seems to take literally forever to find an acceptable manner of closure.  After the central mystery has been dealt with and solved, the plot stumbles around for another 20-plus minutes, almost to the point where we feel we are watching the opening sections of its sequel.  After the film hits its zenith with the confrontation between the heroes and the murderer, it all but loses momentum.  Then there is the film’s black and white title sequence (created by Blur Studio and featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”), which is a deviously artful and visually gorgeous montage of abstract shapes and forms.  As undeniably cool as it is to look at, the sequence is kind of distractingly ostentatious: it’s like a high tech and glossy music video interlude that punctures an otherwise somber and austere narrative.   

Still, Fincher’s film is endlessly compelling to simply look at and engage in: he and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth do a virtuoso job of evoking the chillingly subdued color palette of the original film version.  This new TATTOO film is certainly a masterfully executed technical achievement above and beyond its Swedish predecessor.  Fincher has also miraculously maintained the harsh adult content of the original without pulling any punches whatsoever.  This new TATTOO film is arguably just as graphic and disturbing to sit through when it comes to its sadism at times (how both films managed to secure R-ratings is astounding).  Yet, for as technically exemplary as Fincher’s remake is, it still is not as faultless as its ’09 antecedent.  This new GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is obsessively fascinating for its mystery and character dynamics and Fincher certainly has proved that he is endlessly competent enough to make this film iteration stand apart on its own while being faithful to the tone and mood of the original.  If forced to pick the superior version, though, my gut instinct is telling me to stick with Oplev’s original.  If viewers out there have no desire to seek it out, then this one will do you just fine.

  H O M E