Friday, January 13, 2012

New Release Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)

At long last, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hit theatres this week. There is a hurdle that director David Fincher had to overcome when making this film, and I think it is impossible to overlook. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been done before, and not particularly long ago. This may prove to be a detriment for some viewers having already experienced the story once before (or twice if they have also read the novel). When I heard about the American re-adaptation, I was initially frustrated. Why on earth was this necessary? When I heard that Fincher was on board, my interest was piqued, but I was still confused as to why one of my favourite filmmakers had decided to take on such an endeavour. Could he transform this evidently flawed story into yet another slick thriller?

But, having not been enamoured with the Swedish version (and being progressively bored by the deteriorating sequels) I knew that a better film could be made, and that if anyone could make one, it is David Fincher. Having now seen his film, I can only admire what he has put together. It not only surpasses the cold, remote atmosphere of the Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation, but it is significantly better in almost every way. Fincher has not only crafted a compelling thriller, but he hasn't shied away from the story's brutality, making the experience just as uncomfortable as it's predecessor. Even with his touch of brilliance, this doesn’t rival his best films (Se7en, The Social Network), but Fincher continues to prove that he sure knows how to make a hell of a film.

I won't delve too far into the plot because I presume that most people know it already. Following a pretty extraordinary opening title sequence accompanied by the Reznor/Ross remix of Immigrant Song, we are introduced to Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig), a well-known investigative journalist for Millennium Magazine. In his attempts to take down a corrupt businessman, he has landed himself in court and financial trouble. He is approached by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the uncle of Harriet Vanger, a 16-year-old girl who mysteriously disappeared forty years prior, to re-pursue an investigation into her disappearance and suspected murder. Blomqvist resigns from Millennium and moves to the Vanger estate and begins to recount Harriet's past, using police reports and photographs to piece together new evidence.

We are also introduced to the heavily pierced and tattooed Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a supremely intelligent goth computer hacker who had been been tracking Blomqvist at the request of Vanger. She is a ward of the state, despite now being in her twenties, having been diagnosed with mental incompetencty. When her previous parole guardian suffers a stroke, she is assigned a new one, Bjurman. He is a vile and abusive man who immediately takes complete control of Lisbeth's finances and won't allow her access unless she grants him sexual favours. Lisbeth is approached by Blomqvist (requesting assistance with the case) to join him on his investigation. The pair become a dynamic partnership linking Harriet's disappearance to a series of grizzly murders of young women.

Daniel Craig is perfectly cast for the role of Blomqvist – and I thought he was convincing as the inquisitive journalist. What made his character (and Lisbeth’s) so memorable, were some of the subtle but unique character traits. The way that Craig often had his reading glasses askew around his neck, and his immediate friendship with the cat he finds prowling around his cottage, really made his character interesting, and real. There is one scene, and I loved it, when Blomqvist comes back to the cottage and places something on top of the fridge. As he is walking away he realizes he has bumped a bottle, and quickly recovers and catches it. This was likely a botched take and an accidental bump, but the elegant save ensured it made it through the cutting room, and I think it says a lot about why this film is a success.

As central as Blomqvist is to the plot, Zaillian and Fincher never forget that this story is titled ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’. It’s not really a tale about Mikael Blomqvist, and they smartly ensure that Lisbeth is the film's primary character, given that extra amount of screen time at the end, and has plenty of involvement. After all, it is the link between her own brutal sexual abuse and their hunt for a killer of women that drives her motivation, and is the catalyst to her influence on breaking the case. 

In the Swedish version, I left the experience a little unsure why the story was titled as it was, because I didn’t feel like Lisbeth was evidently the key character. I felt like the film was split, and quite unevenly so. The only scenes that were really compelling were the ones shared by Mikael and Lisbeth. Here, there is no doubt about it. Viewers will leave the cinema praising Lisbeth as a character. Rooney Mara’s bold and committed portrayal not only infuses her character with humanism, but also managed to not only draw sympathy, but entertain. She has some great lines and at one point wears a shirt with "fuck you you fucking fuck" in print. She's a badass. It is one of the year's best performances.

One can’t deny that Rooney Mara is an extremely attractive girl and Lisbeth recognises that her natural beauty means that she is susceptible to male predators, hence the piercings and hoodies to cover up her features. While Noomi Rapace gave a great performance in the Swedish trilogy, I thought she was a little too intense. I never really connected with her character - or desired watching the sequels to see where her story went. Here, Lisbeth is undeniably cool, and I now feel the opposite about Fincher's future instalments. The scenes she shares with Blomqvist are great (and Mara and Craig have excellent chemistry) and some scenes near the end reveal that, despite her intense hatred of men, she still desires and values their company. You can see in her eyes that she is so relieved to find a man that she trusts in Blomqvist, and it is this distrust that explains why she often sleeps with women.

Fincher has brought back the team that worked on The Social Network and it is immediately obvious that this is a well-oiled machine. The editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall ensure that the film’s rhythm is as vicious as the content, and should be work recognised again by the Academy. Though Blomqvist and Salander don’t actually start working together until the half-way point, the way their parallel stories are edited together is elegantly done, ensuring that the film is always compelling, while allowing for early exposition and continued character development without the pace ever stalling.

For viewers who have not read the novel or seen the Swedish version, there are some parts of the plot that might seem to be a little confusing, but I still think Zaillian has done a great job. I feel like the film’s faults stem from the source material, which is almost too dense for a single feature. In his attempts to fit in everything faithfully, Zaillian still leaves much underdeveloped, but nothing unexplained. Even the prolonged sequences following the mystery are interesting, while the final shot could not be more perfect. All in all, events are effectively linked into the sequels, which will soon start production (if they haven’t already).

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has recently made a swift rise up the Oscar ladder and is now a strong contender for nominations in all the major categories. At the very least, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross will be nominated for their phenomenal score, while Jeff Cronenweth (who just picked up an ASC nomination) should also figure for his coldly calculated and often-ingenious photography. Fincher's precise and polished, but morbidly atmospheric aesthetic, might also get a look in. Last but not least, it would be a real shame if Miss Mara is overlooked for her phenomenal performance. It really is some fine work, and if there is one reason to strongly recommend this film, it is she.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. Glad you liked it, Andy, and much more than I did. Obviously Fincher brings a greater directorial flare to the material but I don't feel it deserves Best Picture or Director consideration. It's a shame Fincher's best serial killer film (and arguably best film) Zodiac, was ignored by Oscar.

    Agree that Rooney Mara is good but I loved Noomi Rapace in the original; she's the best thing about the inferior sequels.

    But for Mara to get an Oscar nom would mean Tilda Swinton misses out, for as weak as Glenn Close's perf is in Albert Nobbs, that is a lock. And no way Rooney trumps Tilda.

  2. It’s certainly worth seeing if you missed the original. If you saw it, however, there’s no way of unseeing it, and nothing in the new one to top it. Craig and Mara are great here though and Fincher brings so much more to this film like I was expecting too. Good review Andy.

  3. Good review. I am not a big fan of the original either, so I am fully expecting to have similar reactions. Don't know when I'll be seeing it though :'(

  4. I'm much more lukewarm to this one than you are. I found the weird accents they used very distracting and I also like Rapace better in the role. Mara is just too young and girlish, which also makes for bad chemistry with Craig's character. He's too old for him imo. Funny how very differently you can think of a movie, isn't it! I appreciated the polished style of it though. It's not every day that we get that kind of production shot in Sweden.

  5. Great review, as always, and I agree in most of the points, but I still think something was missing! Rooney Mara is, indeed, a force to be reckoned with!

  6. I really liked the original film, but I thought it let important parts from the book out, that made the story more human and the persons easier to relate to.
    The Hollywood version succeeded in doing so - I especially love the end, which was not included in the Swedish version. All the time I was thinking: please, make them include the real end!

    Also, I was surprised by how realistic and brutal this version was - just like the Swedish one, but it's more unusual for an American film, I think. It even had more sex scenes than the European original. Last but not least, I loved Noomi Rapace and Mikael Nyqvist, but Rooney showed that fragile site of the character a bit more, and Craig was so much better than in every film I've seen him in before.

    I thought I liked both films equally after leaving the cinema, but writing this I realize that I actually like this version more.
    Good review :)

  7. @ D.R - Yeah it was a shame that Zodiac was overlooked but 2007 was a strong year - and though it should have collected some nominations it was never going to beat out There Will be Blood or No Country. Last year was Fincher's year - and he got so robbed. My favourite Fincher serial killer thriller is still Se7en, but he knows how to make sorting through forensic reports exciting. As for Rapace, I thought she was good, but I felt like she was almost too crazy. She was very intense and had very little dialogue, and the chemistry between her and Nyqvist just wasn't prevalent, I thought. Here, I was entertained by Mara's performance and I really liked hers and Craig's chemistry. I agree, she doesn't trump Tilda, but she's my #1. I have accepted that Viola Davis (now that favourite after the CCA), Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams will be there, but after seeing Albert Nobbs, I really find it hard to nominate Glenn Close. Considering she has been involved with this character for so long, to leave the cinema and not even consider Albert to be the most memorable character (for me it was Janet McTeer's) was strange. Leaving Dragon Tattoo - the titular character was by far the most memorable - and that's not because the rest of the cast were weak either. I dunno, I think she deserves a nom.

    @ Dan - Yes, the story is the same - but the story is so flawed that without some interesting stylistic choices to accompany it, it is a tough trip. Here, I think it has been given a top makeover.

    @ Nikhat - You will like this one more. I can guarantee it.

    @ Jessica - I did find it weird that Daniel Craig was using his actual accent, when his name is Mikael Blomqvist and he is obviously supposed to be Swedish. I found Mara to be more realistic, actually, and I thought her chemistry with Craig was great. I think Lisbeth is supposed to be significantly younger isn't she? She's written at an early 20's age. It may be that I am more attracted to Rooney Mara than Noomi Rapace - but I think the idea of Lisbeth is that she is supposed to be a naturally beautiful girl, and she tries to hide her beauty by her attire. It was certainly polished, and the somewhat preposterous story (and odd pacing) is bearable here. Both times I have watched the original (on DVD at home) I found myself bored. Here, I really got into it. I totally understand your points, and it is interesting how different opinions can be. When I get onto HUGO, I think I'm going to be on a different side of the fence to most.

  8. @ Aziza - Yeah, I think it's the fact that there wasn't really that much suspense. That's what is missing. For most of the film we are watching their separate stories unfold, and it is only when they come together that the mystery really kicks in. There are a few scenes of genuine suspense - but I think there might be less than in the original - which I think let the film down slightly. Also, the lengthy finale, which I thought was interesting here, gives the film an 'overlong' feeling. But, I still think it's great. Thanks Aziza!

    @ Mette - I haven't read the novels so I can't compare the effectiveness of the films to the novels. I liked the fact that this one delved into Mikael's relationship with his co-editor. I believe that's a bigger part of the book - and then there is the ending. I though Craig was great - and in a role that is very non-actioneer (a complete opposite to Bond). I much preferred this to the original version - and I'm really glad you also enjoyed this. I think there will be a few cases where fans of the original will loathe this, which I can't understand - but I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for reading!

  9. Not not only was this film dull and redundant, this review....well.