“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”: A bigger, darker Swedish nightmare

Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara lend emotional depth to David Fincher's sweeping film -- but was it worth doing?

Topics: Movies, Our Picks, Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Thrillers,

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo": A bigger, darker Swedish nightmareRooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

There’s no question that David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have found a degree of depth and subtlety in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” that I’m not sure Stieg Larsson knew was in there. As always with Fincher, you get a beautifully engineered production, where even at an unwieldy 158 minutes, every shot and every ominous sound cue are there for a reason. Among living Hollywood directors, only Martin Scorsese is Fincher’s equal for meticulous brilliance. Given the sprawling procedural novel to which the filmmakers had to remain faithful (mostly), this is an ingenious and engrossing work of pop cinema. That said, when it was over I felt a wave of ennui wash over me upon reflecting that we’ve got two more of these to go. Do we really need an entire new series of these films? (Sure, the marketplace will provide an answer, but that might not be the only answer.) And do we really want Fincher devoting the peak years of his career, not to mention a significant portion of his mortal existence, working his way through the pulpy twists and turns of this franchise?

Surprisingly, one of the biggest improvements over Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish-language version (which, in fairness, is pretty good — a whole lot better than its successors) lies in the acting. Rooney Mara is a revelation as Lisbeth Salander, the damaged, aggressive computer geek and feminist revenge angel, playing the character as far more feral and vulnerable than Noomi Rapace’s borderline-stereotype sexpot Goth girl. And Daniel Craig leaves his Bond manner and wardrobe at home, playing disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist as a wry, bespectacled, middle-aged dad, who never considers the idea of being Lisbeth’s sexual partner until it happens, and never seems at ease with it after that. I like Michael Nyqvist, the Swedish actor who played Blomkvist in the first series, but there’s a reason he’s moved on to playing Hollywood villains. There’s a bit too much wolfish swagger about Nyqvist, a bit too much leather jacket, a bit too much confidence that he can outdrink younger guys and bag younger women. Craig can certainly turn on the masculine charm, as required, but his Blomkvist is a driven professional in search of redemption, not a wallowing Hemingway romantic.



Surely there’s somebody out there who hasn’t read the book or seen the previous movie, and doesn’t know the story. On the other hand, maybe not; my usual focus group consists of my mother and my mother-in-law, and they’ve both read it. Let’s cut to the chase by saying that Fincher and Zaillian remain generally true to Larsson’s novel while perhaps rearranging its emphasis a bit, but also that — as you may have heard, O frequenter of the Internet — they have indeed crafted a clever new solution to the central mystery, as well as a final scene that’s quite different from the Oplev film (but closer to the novel). No doubt all sorts of people will complain for all sorts of reasons. In my view the rewrite is a canny adjustment, far more in keeping with the nature of the characters, and a solution Larsson — who was a terrific storyteller, if an indifferent writer — might well have approved of were he around to do so.

Undone by his own sloppiness and facing a major libel judgment, Craig’s Blomkvist walks away from his investigative magazine and his long-running relationship with Erika (Robin Wright), his married editor. He goes into a bar, orders a coffee and a pack of Marlboro Reds, smokes one and throws the pack in the trash — exactly one of those character-defining actions Fincher handles so exquisitely. That’s when he gets the call from a shadowy lawyer who works for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an aging, reclusive tycoon who just happens to be the former boss of the guy who ruined Blomkvist’s career. As we already know, Vanger’s people have employed Lisbeth to compile a confidential and not necessarily legal report on Blomkvist. (She doesn’t think he performs cunnilingus on Erika often enough.)

While Blomkvist begins to investigate the presumed murder of Vanger’s beloved great-niece 40 years earlier — she disappeared from the remote family-owned island Vanger describes as a nest of thieves, misers, bullies and Nazis — Lisbeth is in Stockholm, battling skinheads on the subway and wreaking vengeance on Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), her abusive guardian. I realize that Lisbeth’s brutal rape by Bjurman, and the equally cruel and violent payback, are supposed to be crucial moments in her life and her story. Furthermore, I think I get the point: In a corrupt and chaotic universe, you have to fight fire with fire, and those with no power must find a way to get it, by any means and at any cost. But the whole knife-edge equation between Lisbeth as victim and Lisbeth as avenger, both on the page and in both screen versions, is simultaneously too schematic and more than a little queasy-making.

With her pale eyebrows, shapeless clothing and careless haircut, Mara’s Lisbeth is quite a different creation from the one in the Swedish movies, and much closer to the literary heroine. She craves attention and deflects it with almost every gesture, and her hard shell can’t conceal the fact that her emotions are too close to the surface. Her awkward manner, along with her photographic memory and exaggerated computational skills, suggest the possibility of an autism-spectrum disorder. When she decides to go to bed with Blomkvist, once they’re finally united on Vanger’s Nazi-infected island, she simply takes off her clothes, comes into his room and gets on top of him. Of course most of us know it’s coming, but I still felt almost as surprised as Blomkvist does.

Fincher’s not the kind of director to leave a psychological detail unnoticed, and I think he uses the sex scenes between Blomkvist and Lisbeth to disquiet us as much as turn us on. Almost a hostile stick figure with her clothes on, Mara’s Lisbeth is a voluptuous, spectacular nude, and Blomkvist literally can’t believe his good luck. (Discussion of Mara’s nude scenes has returned the word “merkin” to the popular lexicon, and surely that’s a win for everybody.) Nor does he trust it; in a subtle but significant departure from Larsson’s book, it is Mikael rather than Lisbeth who remains emotionally distant, uncertain about the prospect of true love with a whack-job nearly young enough to be his daughter.

The case of the long-missing Harriet Vanger turns out, of course, to open up a whole series of gruesome, biblically themed murders of women that the Swedish cops have pretty much bungled or ignored. But isn’t it nice that Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), who now runs the Vanger company, is being so helpful and giving our investigators everything they need? Rather quietly, and in late middle age, Skarsgård has become one of the most reliable and charismatic performers in world cinema, capable of elevating mediocre material by his presence. (If you haven’t seen his hilarious starring role in the Norwegian film “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” do so immediately.) Unfortunately, by the time Martin appears, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has indeed lapsed into the kind of middling whodunit where long-hidden clues are distressingly easy to find and the villain takes a long timeout, Goldfinger-style, to explain his motives before he kills you.

As mentioned, I really do like the way Fincher and Zaillian wrap things up, and even during the movie’s slower patches cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (who also shot Fincher’s “Social Network”) delivers spectacular images of the Scandinavian winter and the severe interiors. Fincher’s movies always have density and atmosphere to burn, and those things are arguably the point of the Millennium trilogy, more than its frankly nonsensical story line. This is an immersive and powerful thriller, driven by terrific leading performances. It’s mostly really good and then it wears out its welcome. Now, seriously, can’t we quit while we’re ahead? I’m not sure I can stand two more rounds with Lisbeth and Blomkvist (and a pile of villains we haven’t even met yet), not to mention sit through two more movies made in that deadly “international style,” where everybody speaks English with a Nordic-Slavic, Greta Garbo-meets-Ingmar Bergman accent. (Craig doesn’t even do that, although other Anglophones in the cast do, including Mara, Wright and Plummer.) The Nazi-Soviet woman-hating butler did it. Is that good enough?

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>