The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or TGWTDT, as I will be referring to it for the rest of this review) is a stylish thriller with a mixed bag of thrills. What the film excels at is style and performance, but it stumbles quite a bit in its desire to be wholly complex and intricate. It really WANTS to be a monumental film, but it’s not. It’s greatly entertaining, lovely to look at, and features a star-making performance by Rooney Mara, but it’s not going to redefine cinema.
Director David Fincher is a complex filmmaker, much like the material he tackles in his work. He’s typically showcasing a new stylistic approach in each of his films, giving a lot of weight to his technical skill. And he’s got skill to spare in that department. Fincher has earned the title of filmmaker, hands down. He knows what he’s doing and he does it well, almost methodically. However, I think that hinders more than helps with TGWTDT.
The movie is almost too well structured for its own good. What it’s really missing is grit. There are some very raw scenes, but the film is executed with such cleanliness that it felt like it detracted from the material.
Based on the novel by Steig Larsson, TGWTDT is the story of a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who runs a magazine with his partner/lover (Robin Wright-Penn). He is the prototypical journalist, out to “spread the truth” about corporate entities committing crimes and hiding behind “corporate greed” and blah, blah, blah. There’s nothing particularly interesting about his job or how he goes about it. At the onset of the film he’s just been convicted of libel against one of these corporate individuals and is at a low point in his life and career.
This opens up the doors for him to accept a position as a biographer/detective in solving a decades old murder of the niece of a wealthy business owner in Sweden (played by Christopher Plummer). The business owner is the patriarch of a massive family, the Vangars, all of whom are snobby and dysfunctional and not terribly interesting. Plummer’s character is haunted by the murder and wants it solved utilizing Blomkvist’s investigative journalism skills. In return he pays triple of Blomkvist’s salaray and promises to give some leverage on the man who had him convicted of libel.
Intercut between this set up is the establishment of the real central character, Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara), a social outcast/ward of the state, declared incompetent, but on probation to work and sustain herself. Decked out in leather and piercings, her hair chopped and cropped, looking like an 80’s punk rock explosion, Lisbeth is the single most interesting thing in the entirety of the movie. And, that’s the way it should be.
However, it sure wouldn’t hurt if the rest of the supporting cast were as engaging or provoking as her. Actress Rooney Mara embodies the role that was so well-executed by Noomi Repace in the Swedish versions of the trilogy, bringing strength, vulnerability, charm, and mystery to the role of the troubled genius that is Lisbeth Salander. Her natural beauty is hidden underneath the mask of shaved eyebrows, close cropped hair, piercings, and ill-fitting clothes. Mara disappears into the role, living and breathing Salander in every way. It’s a dream role for any actress working in Hollywood. Filled with substance, conflict, and a tall order of emotion, pain, and presence, Mara should consider herself lucky to have landed the part. She should feel equally proud for nailing it.
The problem with TGWTDT is that Lisbeth is so much more interesting than anyone else in the film, yet we have to share so much time with Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist, which is rather dull back-and-forth with the family members he’s researching. He spends the majority of his time looking at pictures, walking around the grounds of the family’s land, or feeding a stray cat.
Things don’t get kickin’ until he goes to enlist Salander to help him catch the killer. It’s an interesting dynamic and I’m sure the author intended it that way; it’s opposites attract all the way. Salander is everything that Blomkvist isn’t and vice versa. However, their investigative minds are similar and it’s what draws them together, sparking an attraction that leads them to consummate their relationship.
However, it takes an HOUR before we get to this. That’s one hell of a set up. And aside from Salander’s story, it’s not really worth it. I don’t want to spoil the much talked about rape/revenge storyline as it is epic in its presentation and scope, arguably one of the best revenge sequences I’ve ever seen, but it’s important to note that it only involves Salander. It’s the most excruciatingly intense scene of the film, which is a shame, because the film simply can’t top it by the time you reach the ho-hum climax.
With Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score pumping you through each scene in heart-pounding beats and mysterious noise, you can feel the eeriness creeping around you as the two investigators dig deeper and deeper into the murder of the young girl. The music is fitting and inventive, but not for all tastes. I really love the duo, especially what they did for Fincher’s last film, The Social Network, but I think they missed some of the cues to speed the film along.
Rounding out the cast is Stellan Skarsgaard as the current head of the Vagar family business, Lynn Redgrave, and Joely Richardson, all of who deliver on what’s expected (or unexpected in this case). Skarsgaard seems to always be reliable, even when getting his arm bit off by mutated sharks in Deep Blue Sea, so it’s always welcome to see him on screen.
After a lot of thought, I’ve determined that TGWTDT is a bit of a gender role-reversal of the stereotypical thriller. In this case, Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is the female role: tough-minded, practical, non-violent, and emasculated at every turn, whereas Salander is the oft-dismissed troublemaker, the rebel, the unpredictable genius investigator, mysterious, strong, and vulnerable. If you reversed the roles, having Craig play Salander (as a man, of course) and Mara playing Blomkvist, it would be perfect conventional Hollywood casting.
I don’t see this as a bad thing, but rather as an eye-opener. Women have complained for years about the lack of substance to female roles. Watching Daniel Craig, who is a great actor (he’s James freakin’ Bond!), have to play the “female” role really showcases how much that role is underwritten and downplayed. Salander has all the fun!
Overall, TGWTDT is engaging, raw (but not gritty), stylish, and, if nothing else, features one of the most interesting female characters to come along in a long while. It’s doubtful you’ll walk away from this with anything exceptional to say about any of the rest of the cast (including Craig) other than Mara, who brings the non-subtitled version of Lisbeth Salander to life with all the angst, torment, wit, and physicality that the character deserves.
It’s worth nothing that the film features an amazing opening sequence that evokes a feeling of a really dark, R-rated James Bond film (ironic, obviously because of Craig’s involvement), which should not be viewed while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. It’s little nuances like this that will always make me have the deepest respect for Fincher’s work.
Given the lackluster box office of TGWTDT so far, it’s unlikely the studio will be in a mad hurry to finish out the trilogy, but I really hope they do. I know they’ve discussed shooting the next two films back-to-back, obviously in the hopes of Fincher helming, but as is usually the case, the almighty dollar will dictate that. Personally, I’d love to see Fincher and Mara reunite, as the next two stories focus heavily on Lisbeth Salander and a lot less on Mikael Blomkvist. For once, we have a worthy and compelling female character, capable of carrying the weight of a film of this magnitude and I’m certainly onboard to see her continue the journey.