Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Highly satisfying and smart thriller, which should quiet all the naysayers who might have thought this much-anticipated zeitgeist remake project wholly unnecessary.

In an apt marriage of subject and director, Hollywood has boldly taken on the publishing/film phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a remake by David Fincher, which successfully tweaks the perfectly adequate original 2009 Swedish version by Niels Arden Oplev for mass audiences. From its roaringly gripping credit sequence, one of the most arresting ever done, of darkly screaming heads thrashing about to Led Zeppelin’s brilliantly selected “Immigrant Song,” Fincher grabs you by the short hairs and never lets go.

It’s the by-now worldwide familiar saga of two crime investigators, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a muckraking journalist who has nearly been ruined by a libel case against his paper, Millennium, and Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), a physically virtuosic, technically brilliant researcher, who is also a ward of the state due to her violently antisocial behavior. They are both hired by wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious 1966 disappearance of his young niece, Harriet. This oddest of couples come together on Vanger’s private Swedish island, populated by his various highly eccentric family members, most of whom no longer speak to one another.

In the simplest nutshell, that’s the plot, which, in its arcane twists and complexity, rivals the most Baroque imaginings of Raymond Chandler. But Fincher and his superbly canny screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, have delineated it with a swift concision which is easy to follow and always deeply compelling (even more so in the research scenes than in the action moments), and, better yet, have largely humanized Larsson’s icy conception. The film could easily have skirted on the verge of risibility with so many non-Scandinavian actors affecting Swedish accents, but the ever-prescient Fincher keeps those to a suggestive minimum and, as always, blesses his film with perfect casting.

After an actress search for Lisbeth said to rival the legendary one for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, the filmmakers have come up aces with Mara. Unrecognizable as the girl in the horrendous date-scene opener of The Social Network, Mara, in a supremely iconic performance, hostile and pierced, tatted and mohawked within an inch of her life, presents one of the most memorable anti-heroines in movie history. As formidable as her Lisbeth is, she is less alien-scary than Noomi Rapace was in the Swedish version. Her infernal, amusingly deadpan efficacy and brutal antics are fun to watch, especially when she takes a very necessary and satisfying revenge against her sexually abusive guardian, lawyer Dirch Frode (a memorably oozing Yorick van Wageningen)—the best woman-vs.-man vengeance scene since Margaux Hemingway’s in Lamont Johnson’s unjustly forgotten Lipstick. Additionally, and wonderfully, Mara also makes Lisbeth touching in the extreme, especially in her burgeoning, hopeless affection for Mikael, already involved with his editor (a barely seen Robin Wright), which makes for a very poignant Christmas wrap-up scene that, yes, has you definitely wanting to see more of her.

Craig manages to lend some effective gravity and flashes of wit to the less developed character of Mikael, something which future episodes of The Girl… may hopefully correct. Plummer seems to be doing a sly takeoff on Max von Sydow, an excellent histrionic choice when you think about it. His family members are an intriguing bunch of weirdly dissembling gargoyles, some of them menacing ex-Nazis, with Geraldine James and Joely Richardson particularly good and shady as distaff suspects in the case. Only Stellan Skarsgård seems too-easy casting as Martin, brother of the missing Harriet; perhaps he’s just done too many similar roles lately to bring much real suspense or surprise to the proceedings.

Photography, editing, design and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ tasty electronic score all contribute impeccably to this Scott Rudin production, making this reliably smart producer by now so eminently worthy of an Irving Thalberg Award. The entire film hums along like the engine of the finest Lamborghini, propelling a super-smart thriller which is also a humane one; although it deals with the most hideous serial killings, unlike Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac it surprisingly (and mercifully) soft-pedals the violence.