Film Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

:  After the success of the novel, the Swedish-language version of the film, and the way in which the main characters became internationally known, it was a bit puzzling that MGM would green light a (reputedly) 100 million dollar budget for a English-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  When I saw the trailer for the movie, I thought it was going to be like the American version of Let the Right One In — the Norwegian film about a bullied boy who befriends a vampire who is roughly his age– in that it was almost a frame by frame remake.

So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I bought my ticket to see the David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. From the opening title sequence, I knew this was going to be a different experience from original film.  Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singing Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” was the first indication, but the title sequence that Fincher put together had shades of Alien3 that captured a kind of gooey DNA mess in a violent succession of images showing a kind of creation and destruction of life. And then the choice of “Immigrant Song” certainly foreshadowed what was to come in the film — with lyrics full of violence and domination.

Where the Swedish version of the film was sprawling, and at times, an incoherent mess (especially at the beginning), the American version is taut, focused, and sketches out the three main plot lines very clearly. That’s no easy feat because the source material (i.e., the novel) was also somewhat hard to follow in the early parts. I’m sure the screenwriter Steven Zaillian (San Francisco State University alum!) struggled to tell a coherent story in the early drafts, but he knew that the most interesting characters  (Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander) wouldn’t cross paths until the midpoint of the film. So his challenge was to make each character’s individual storyline compelling enough by distilling the narrative down to its most dramatic parts.  And thankfully Zaillian succeeded in creating a screenplay that weaves three main story lines into an absorbing plot that centers on the murder of teenager 40 years ago (and a prominent Swedish patrician  — played by Christopher Plummer — who would like it solved).  There’s also Blomkvist’s own problems after losing a libel case (and the company that is trying to bring him down), and Lisbeth’s struggle to overcome abuse by men in her life.  Taken individually, these plot lines could make for films of their own, but trying to resolve the conflict of all three arcs in one film is no easy task.

But in the hands of David Fincher, the film succeeds in large part because he’s able to get stellar performances out of his cast.  Daniel Craig does a superb job as Blomkvist by bringing a world-weariness to the character in a way that one is not sure if he has any fight left in him — until he gets the job of solving the murder.  Energized by what he’s discovering, he digs into the back stories of the Vanger family, their ties to Nazism, the money they made through the construction of the Swedish railroad, and their petty rivalries.  On the way to solving the murder, Blomkvist partners with Lisbeth — who’s a gifted investigator and computer hacker wonderfully played by Rooney Mara — and in the process, the two of them help each other both professionally and emotionally.  Blomkvist is a progressive whose life work is to check the power of corporations and highlight injustice.  Lisbeth is product of abuse by both men and the state — and that leaves her suspicious of almost everyone and their motives.   The two of them do make a good team and because of their tenacity (and Lisbeth’s protective nature of those she loves) they are able to get at the heart of murder mystery and take on the corporation that almost bankrupted Blomkvist  (though this is Lisbeth’s undertaking as a way to defend Blomkvist from those who have hurt him).

The film is has some very graphic scenes of rape, images of dismemberment, torture, and other unpleasant things. But this is what author Stieg Larsson wanted to highlight:  how power in Swedish society is deeply rooted in fascism, misogyny, and anti-semitism.  Yes, these are deeply depressing things, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really puts a spotlight on the human drama in a captivating way that will have you talking about the film long after you leave the theater.




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