Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The (2011): David Fincher’s American Version of Swedish Cult Novel and Film, Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard

The eagerly-awaited American version (it’s not really a remake) of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from the cult crime novel, finds David Fincher at the top of his form, reaffirming his status as one of the most inventive and brilliant directors working in Hollywood today.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Theatrical release poster

First published in 2005, shortly after Stieg Larsson’s death, the initial novel in the series, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” introduced readers to financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and avenging hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson’s blockbuster “Millennium Trilogy,” a series of thrillers that have sold 65,000,000 copies in 46 countries. All three books have been filmed, though only the first as big-screen fare; the other two were made for TV (and looked that way).

As a follow-up to “The Social Network,” the best picture of 2010, “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” lacks the immediate relevance of that film; after all, “Social Network” dealt with a contemporary phenomenon still in the works, so to speak, centering on real-life characters-celebs whom the public knew or was aware of.

But as far as utilizing the unique properties of the medium to tell a story in a compellingly filmic way, “Dragon Tattoo” is just as accomplished. The movie marks the third masterpiece from Fincher, a cycle that began with “Zodiac,” in 2007, and reached its climax with “The Social Network.”

Each of these films bears the personal signature of Fincher as director-auteur and yet they are made in a very different style, one chosen to fit the particular story they are telling. What’s most noticeable is the increased pacing of Fincher’s films. The speed at which “Dragon Tattoo” moves along may be twice as fast as “Zodiac,” for example, which is suitable to the nature of the tale.

The only problem with “Dragon Tattoo” is the familiarity of many viewers with the plot, characters, mystery, and resolution from having read the best-selling book and/or having watched the Swedish film, which came out in 2009, and by standards of foreign films did extremely well at the box-office (grossing north of $10 million in the U.S. and north of $100 million internationally).

A lot of people in the industry were surprised when Fincher chose Rooney Mara to play the lead; almost every young actress (including Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan) had wanted to play Lisbeth. Judging by her mesmerizing performance, Mara (who played Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in “Social Network”) was the right choice. Mara is simply riveting: When she is on screen, you cannot take your eyes off from her. Moreover, she not only holds her own in her scenes with a pro like Daniel Craig, but she outshines him (some of this has to do with the part she’s playing, which I think is better crafted than Craig’s by Steve Zaillian, who adapted the book to the screen.

The dark, seedy milieu of the tale, which Fincher smartly kept in Sweden, fits perfectly his dark (noirish) sensibility, which has been evident from his very first film, not to mention “Se7en,” his 1995 outstanding serial killer horror film. But Fincher trusts his instincts and doesn’t emphasize the pulp, sensationalistic aspects of the tale, which includes multiple murders, anal rapes, dirty family secrets, Nazism, misogyny, decadent corporation, and so on. In the hands of another director, the story could have easily become sleazy and exploitational.

Throughout, Fincher conveys the idea that his two protagonists are severely flawed human beings, plagued by both inner and outer demons. To describe these two individuals as unexpected partners, or to use the concept of the “Odd Couple,” is an understatement.

In the fist half of the story, for over an hour, the two characters are kept separately, and the narrative cuts back and forth between their stories. Needless to say, Lisbeth’s story is far more intriguing than Mikael’s.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an appealing man in his forties, is a financial reporter determined to restore his honor and redeem his self-esteem after being convicted of libel, which happens in the film’s very first scene.

Before long, he’s engaged by one of Sweden’s wealthiest industrialists, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet. Vanger believes that she was murdered by a family member.

With plenty of time on his hands, Mikael moves to a remote, isolated island on the frozen Swedish coast, totally unprepared of what’s to come. Initially, his only companion is a cat.

Meanwhile, we get to know Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an ingenious investigator with Milton Security, who is only 24 but behaves as if she has had her share of life experiences.

In terms of looks, personality, sexuality, and profession, Lisbeth represents a new type of screen heroine. Tall and slender, she’s always clad in black, sporting a leather jacket, a very short ebony hair, and proudly exhibiting several piercings and tattoos. Lisbeth moves so fast you can hardly keep track of her moves. (She is considerably helped by the superlative cinematography and editing). There’s an astonishing scene, in which her bag is snapped while she’s climbing the escalator; not thinking twice, she goes back and retrieves it quickly.

The plot kicks in when Lisbeth is hired to do a “routine” background check on Blomkvist, a job that ultimately leads to her joining Mikael in his investigation of who had killed Harriet Vanger.

Lisbeth is not only the epitome of cool; she’s also extremely cynical for her age—and for good reasons. She has been physically and sexually abused, but she doesn’t behave like a victimized girl. Au contraire, she knows her strengths and limitations in a male-dominated milieu. A dark avenging angel, she prepares to strike at the first opportunity that she gets against one particular oppressor, a predatory legal advocate named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who’s her guardian.

Her modus operandi is to shield herself from the outside world, by minding her own business that is, using as best as possible her extraordinary hacking skills. Blessed with an incredible single-minded focus, Lisbeth executes her tasks quickly, methodically, and efficiently.

Lisbeth lives in a cold, grim, cynical world which has betrayed her so many times that she doesn’t seem to believe in anything anymore. Did I mention that she is a lesbian (or bi-sexual)? When needing sex, she goes to a local club, grabs her object of desire in the genitalia and within minutes brings her home.

In their work, the two “detectives” employ different strategies and methods. While Mikael goes face-to-face with the tight-lipped Vangers, Lisbeth plies the wired shadows. After joining forces, they begin to trace a chain of homicides over the past four decades. The crimes that they begin to unravel are shockingly creepy and savage, even by standards of current American horror stories.

At first, the bond between Mikael and Lisbeth is limited to their professional work. Gradually, though, they forge a fragile strand of trust. But one night, Lisbeth, by far the more aggressive of the duo, forces herself onto Mikael sexually. Significantly, the act begins with Lisbeth sitting on top of him. It is noteworthy that there is more sex in Fincher’s version than there was in the Swedish film, in which the intercourse was a one-time occurrence.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” may merit its R rating, due to several scenes of rape and torture, frontal nudity, anal intercourse, child abuse, hardcore S&M, and brutal violence, all of which are in the book, which had been more faithfully adapted to the screen in the American than Swedish version.

Fincher is a sophisticated filmmaker and so it’s expected for his picture to be both slick and sleek. The wintry milieu is expectedly bleak, dark (or gray), which becomes all the more apparent in its contrast to the brighter (yellow-toned) images of the flashbacks that depict the family events in the past and specifically Harriet’s mysterious disappearance.

Richly dense in text and subtext, “Dragon Tattoo” evokes several movies about the acts of viewing, watching, and looking. Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece, Blow-Up comes to mind, as photographs of the past play a major role in the narrative. Time and again we go back to a photo of the disappearing girl during a public parade, in which she is staring intensely at “something” or “somebody” (No more can be told about this crucial point)

At the end of the film, there is no relief or catharsis, but a strangely creepy and haunting feeling–call it postmodern chill.

End Note:

The movie was popular at the box office, both domestic and international, resulting in a haul close to $240 million against a production budget of 490 million


Mikael Blomkvist – Daniel Craig

Lisbeth Salander – Rooney Mara

Henrik Vanger – Christopher Plummer

Martin Vanger – Stellan Skarsgard

Frode – Steven Berkoff

Erika Berger – Robin Wright

Bjurman – Yorick van Wageningen

Anita Vanger – Joely Richardson

Cecilia – Geraldine James

Armansky – Goran Visnjic

Det. Morell – Donald Sumpter

Wennerstrom – Ulf Friberg


Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, Based on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Produced by Scott Rudin, Ole Søndberg, Søren Stærmose, Ceán Chaffin

Cinematography Jeff Cronenweth
Edited by Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall

Music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Scott Rudin Productions, Yellow Bird

Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing

Release dates: Dec 12, 2011 (Odeon Leicester Square)
December 21, 2011 (US)
Running time: 158 minutes

Language English
Budget $90 million
Box office $239.3 million




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