MOVIE REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


As a completely non-book reader at my age, I find a relaxing comfort as a movie reviewer in never being disappointed with a movie based on a book.  I'm never nit-picking details.  I'm never questioning casting. I'm never sitting in anticipation of a good part I know is coming, only to find it condensed or changed by the movie.  I'm never torn between the two mediums.  As I tell people all the time, please judge the book and the movie separately.  That's my policy.  No movie is ever, and I mean ever, going to match the book.  They are two different mediums and no book will fit into a two, let alone three hour movie.  

That being said, I knew nothing in advance for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I haven't read the Stieg Larsson book series, nor seen any of the original Swedish films (even though they are sitting in my Netflix queue).  All I can do is judge the movie you put in front of me.  I'll take the time to be a snob to watching the original movies or reading the original books some other time.

What I do know is that David Fincher is a hell of a director.  From Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club in his early years to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network of now, he's arguably one of the top two or three directors working today (with Christopher Nolan) to never win an Oscar.  I thought he had a Best Director trophy or two in the bag with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, but to no avail from Academy voters.  Can something like tackling a huge international best-seller do the trick?  We'll see in two months when Oscar nominations are released, but he sure swung for the fences with his English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Adapted by Steve Zaillian, who may just earn a second Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination this year with his work here and with Aaron Sorkin on the well-regarded Moneyball script, we follow two very different Stieg Larsson main characters.  The first is Mikael Blomkvist (the razor-sharp Daniel Craig).  Mikael is an investigative journalist and co-owner of Stockholm's Millenium magazine who just lost a very brutal, very public, and financially-costly libel case against powerful businessman Han-Erik Wennerstrom.  With a shot reputation, he is propositioned by an aging former CEO Henrik Vanger (the pitch-perfect Christopher Plummer) and his legal assistant (Steven Berkoff), to write his biography.  In meeting Henrik on Hedeby Island, the Vanger family's property in the town of Hedestad and a train ride north of Stockholm, Mikael learns that assignment is just a cover for Henrik's true wishes: for Mikael to investigate a unsolved disappearance and possible murder of his great-niece Harriet that occured nearly 40 years ago.  Henrik puts Mikael up in the guest cottage on the island and begins to introduce him to his estranged family members and history on the island.

Our second main character is the freakish computer hacker Lizbeth Salander (the incredible Rooney Mara in a breakout performance), who makes her money as an illegal investigator for hire.  She is the one that performed the background check on Mikael for Henrik Vanger.  Her mental problems and violent history have kept her off the books as a ward of the state, even though she's in her 20's.  When her current legal guardian becomes debilitated by a stroke, the state issues her a new legal guardian, lawyer Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) who seizes her finances and forces her to perform sexual favors in exchange for her needed money.  Needless to say, this only further boils Lizbeth's anger and repression.

Through investigating the incidents behind Harriet's possible murder, Mikael keeps running into frosty dead ends.  At the point of needing help, Mikael seeks out and recruits Lizbeth to join the investigation.  They develop a unique and beneficial working (and non-working) relationship.  Her involvement jump-starts the uncovering of more deaths and more secrets to the point where Harriet may be the victim of a possible serial killer and not an isolated incident.

For some reason, serial killer movies (Se7en and Zodiac) seem to be an old reliable specialty for Fincher.  While this film will never top the poignant suspense of Se7enThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a wonderfully engaging and endlessly interesting mystery.  Though the movie runs nearly three hours, the deeper the investigation goes, the deeper the movie grabs your interest.  Unlike the unsolved Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo offers a great many payoffs, twists, and surprises on its way to sequel-begging finish.

All involved do a great job of setting this mystery in motion.  From an impressive Bond-movie-worthy, all-black, "Immigrant Song"-fueled, opening credits sequence of twisted imagery, the movie sets a dark mood and doesn't let go.  Fincher is a master of overhead shots and Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who won an undeserving Oscar collaborating with Fincher last year for The Social Network) continue that dark motif with a dynamite score.  The movie is long and, while no one can ever love and adore a disturbing serial killer movie to the point of smiles and song, this film goes out of his way to impress you.  You won't like everything you see, but you will be impressed.

LESSON #1: DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER-- Lizbeth Salander personifies this lesson greatly.  Dismissed as a frail freak of tattoos, spiked hair, and piercings, she hides an underlying rage, dynamic intelligence, frightening focus, sexual ferocity, and fearless resolve.  She is incredibly diligent and good at her work.  While meek on the outside, when any of those underlying traits are triggered, the full-blown results are remarkable.

LESSON #2: NO SECRET IS EVER SAFE IN THIS DAY AND AGE-- With ever-present public surveillance and security cameras everywhere we go, everyone in this world leaves tracks. Also with a camera phone, wireless device, or hackable e-mail account in every single person's hand, we don't realize it fully, but no one has complete privacy these days.  If someone wanted to find out what you did the night before last or the most intimate details of your life, they could in this day and age.  Scary stuff!

LESSON #3: FAMILY SECRETS ARE THE DARKEST AND DEEPEST OF ALL SECRETS-- Hopefully, none of us are keeping a secret as tragic, dark, and violent as that of the Vanger family, but there's something to be said about the protection and bonds within family circles.  Because of the motivations of keeping the family name clean or not accusing one of your own, family secrets can be some of most damning and horrendous of all.  The repression of "keeping them in the family" only adds to their deception and depth.