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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Triumphs With Mystery, Dirtiness

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Steven Zaillian from the novel by Stieg Larsson
Sony, 2011

David Fincher returns to the serial-killer genre that made him a go-to director with Seven and returned to with the much-appreciated box office bomb ZodiacThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004 and never got to see any of this, is one of those phenomenons that almost everyone has heard about in some way or form.  “The Millennium Trilogy” as it is known has already been adapted into mega-hit films from Sweden and made their mark here in the US to the art-house crowd.  They made an international star out of Noomi Rapace for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, the titular character who is smart, repulsive, sexy, and dangerous all at once.

It was unthinkable that anyone could step into Rapace’s shoes for the American version.  She is Lisbeth, and this American version was going to get it all wrong.  It definitely would have been wrong had some of the earlier star candidates made it.  I can’t imagine Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson in this, actresses who are too concerned with their image (and nudity).  A huge roster of all the young actresses we know were mulled over but in the end Rooney Mara, who played the girlfriend Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook for in Fincher’s The Social Network won out.  While Lisbeth is not quite as iconic as The Joker, the same comparisons can be made here that we made with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.  Rooney Mara owns this character as much as Rapace does.

The plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is complex, owing to its many characters and eras it covers.  I will try to condense this as much as I can: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a writer/reporter whose integrity has been called into question with a story about a corrupt businessman that has led to an expensive slander trial.  Somewhat disgraced, he leaves the magazine he writes for when another businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires him to write his memoirs…and to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal).

Vanger lives in a mansion on a huge estate that includes other houses filled with some of his lonely family.  His great-nephew, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgaard) lives high on a hill and runs the family business.  His brothers were former Nazis, and only one of them, Harald (Per Myrberg) still lives.  He’s the ultimate suspect in Harriet’s disappearance.  Other family includes Anita Vanger (Joely Richardson) and Cecilia (Geraldine James).

The other side of the story is Lisbeth Salander, who has been in state custody for years after killing her father.  She’s withdrawn, has multiple piercings in her face, wears leather, rides motorcycles, and of course has tattoos.  She’s also ridiculously smart and can hack into anyone’s computer.  She often gets jobs from wealthy types to do “sensitive” (illegal) work.  Her guardian has just suffered a stroke and now she has to be handled by a new man, Nils Bjurman (Yorick can Wageningen), who is beyond a monster, only allowing Lisbeth money in return for sexual favors, and then not even favors…rape of the lowest degree.  Her initial experience with Mikael Blomkvist was getting hired to do a background check on him for Vanger.  When Blomkvist finds out that Lisbeth hacked into his computer, he’s both impressed and feels violated, hiring her to be his assistant in the Vanger case.

From there, Blomkvist and Salander pour over photos, newspaper clippings, business deals, testimony, and so on.  Of particular interest is Harriet’s attendance at a parade, where she learns something that causes her to leave suddenly, return home, and then disappear shortly afterwards.  The investigation includes scouring pictures from the parade, of which there are many, from different angles, that might provide the ultimate key in who is responsible for her disappearance.

That’s as condensed as it gets, there are many other things to touch, but that’s the basics.  The story has to solve three big problems: Mikael’s disgrace, Lisbeth’s horrible new guardian, and the ultimate in the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance.  Up until now, I’ve left out Robin Wright, who plays Erika Berger and is having an affair with Mikael, and that he has a daughter from a marriage that was broken up by that affair.  Other things should be kept as a revelation.

I enjoy this story a great deal, it’s a good old-fashioned mystery but wrapped in a dirty blanket–sex and violence are ever-present.  Rooney Mara comes out as the winner in this movie.  A character like Lisbeth will kick-start her career into overdrive.  The thing that will be hard to predict is whether Mara will be able to sell herself as the girl who played Lisbeth while making audiences believe she can be good in other roles, the typecast effect of strong, vivid characters.  In any case, this is a fearless performance, filled with just the right amount of toughness and tenderness–her toughness never seems like it was written just so the girl can be tough, a lot of times that comes off contrived, but not here.  And her tenderness is well earned, even though you’ll end up seeing her do some things that are wickedly violent (justifiably so).

The mystery, in the end, is what sells the story.  It’s well plotted and satisfyingly investigated.  A lot of times with mysteries like these the previous investigation was done in a slipshod manner and the bumbling detectives missed some easy details.  But this is a mystery that was well-investigated by Detective Morell (Donald Sumpter) and it became his “Rebecca” case, an unsolved mystery that drives detectives mad and so-named for a case that an older detective could not solve but became obsessed with and became a joke for doing so.  Morell put everything he could into the case, so when Lisbeth and Blomkvist start finding new details, it’s not because of something a rookie or drunk or dunce couldn’t find.

Fincher adds some style to the very good, but straightforward, original.  It unfolds much like Zodiac did, but this has more pop appeal than that movie and he should be well-rewarded with a (bloody) Christmas hit.


Comment from Jonathan
Time: December 22, 2011, 7:22 am

Having read the book twice and seen the Swedish version multiple times, I figured I would be fairly indifferent

Comment from Jonathan
Time: December 22, 2011, 7:31 am

…but I was wrong. I know I will be in the minority (at least of people who have seen the Swedish version), but I think Fincher’s version is better. This version is more suspenseful and the unfolding of the mystery is handled better. And you are right about Mara. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most interesting characters of the 21st Century, and Rooney Mara nails it as well as Rapace did. I also thought Fincher did a great job with what he decided to exclude (I am so glad to see the affair with Harriet’s cousin was taken out; that’s the worst part of the book).

And I just found this interesting. Michael Nqvist (Swedish Blomkvist) is in the new “Mission Impossible” movie and Noomi Rapace is in the new “Sherlock Holmes” movie which are in direct competition with the American version of the film that got them their roles they have right now. I never was good with figuring out whether or not something was ironic (Damn you, Alanis Morisette!), but it’s intriguing nonetheless to think of the stars that had to allign to make that happen. That crazy Hollywood!

Anyways, one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and as always, great review.

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: December 22, 2011, 1:20 pm

I actually was going to mention that thing about Rapace (Sherlock), Nyqvist (MI4), and the competition with the new Tattoo, but the review was going to go long. It’s absolutely amazing–of course there are other weird things going on here like Steven Spielberg coming out with two movies in one week: One of them, Adventures of Tintin, has voices by Daniel Craig (Tattoo) and Simon Pegg (MI4). It must be a wondrous and confusing week for many of these actors.

Comment from Jonathan
Time: December 22, 2011, 7:25 pm

It really is like 10,000 spoons, and all you need is a knife or meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife.

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