“Lisbeth, oh Lisbeth. Say, have you met Lisbeth, Lisbeth the dragon-tattooed lady?”

The biggest mystery behind David Fincher’s icy thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is why the auteur felt the need to remake the adequate if unspectacular Swedish original in the first place. After seeing the movie itself, that question remains unanswered. It’s got style to burn and a couple of leads who are infinitely more charismatic than their Swedish counterparts, but it’s still the same ordinary, old-fashioned whodunit wrapped up in modern psychosexual trappings with the same male-fantasy-disguised-as- feminist-superhero pushing all the buttons. That’s fine and, if you haven’t read the book or seen the original, that might be enough. But if you have, there’s really not a whole lot to see here. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not bad, but is this the movie the collective internets have been hyperventilating over for the last year and a half? Really?

Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist a journalist disgraced by a libel conviction who is hired to investigate a 45-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of the daughter of the richest, most powerful family in Sweden. Rooney Mara is jet black-haired, dragon-tattooed and pierced cyberpunk princess Lisbeth Salander, the hacker extraordinaire Blomkvist recruits to do all the hard stuff while he scratches his head looking befuddled. Christopher Plummer plays Henrik Vanger, the old man who for some reason wants to figure out what happened to his niece 45 years later and Stellan Skarsgard plays Harriet’s surviving brother Martin, one of a long list of suspects.

Being rich and powerful, the Vangers have all kinds of skeletons in their closets, not the least of which is a streak if Nazism, but Harriet’s disappearance just might be tied in some way to a rash of religiously motivated serial killings. It’s not much of a mystery really, but it’s made more interesting by Lisbeth’s side story. She’s a ward of the state being abused by the man assigned to her case. How she gets out from under him and takes her revenge is far more interesting (and surprising) than the goings on of the Vangers. There’s also a long coda to the main story involving Mikael getting his good name back, but honestly this would’ve all been better left to the inevitable sequel. Clocking in around 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo simply takes more time than its substance or entertainment value earn.

The zestiest part is a music video disguised as an opening credits sequence set to Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Why this song? because it has a lyric about ice and snow and Valhalla and that’s kinda Scandinavian, right? Though entertaining and though the silver and black, CG-dominated sequence fits the film’s fetishistic marketing and overall production design, tonally it doesn’t really match what comes after it. It sets you up for a story with a lot more juice than the surprisingly ordinary tale ultimately delivers.

The good news is that Daniel Craig and especially Rooney Mara are much more engaging than either Michael Nyqvist or the heavily hyped Noomi Rapace from the 2009 original adaptation. Mara can do feral as well as Rapace, but she can also be convincingly soft and the range in between is filled with more subtle character details. It’s an all around more nuanced and more entertaining performance – which is no small thing because the story really does belong to its title character. It’s Mara’s for the taking and she makes it hers.

Technically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as unimpeachable as you’d expect from a perfectionist like Fincher, but the most striking and memorable aspect is the terrific, non-traditional score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor which lends a creepy, almost subliminal feeling of unease to the rather conventional on-screen goings on. Everything else unfortunately has the perfunctory feeling of something we’ve already seen and done before… and we have. In the Fincher filmmography, this one falls somewhere below Panic Room.

25 Responses to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)”

  1. My jaw just dropped, but it might be because it’s nearly 6am. I can’t believe you really didn’t like Noomi’s portrayal xD

    Anyway, it’s good to see people that aren’t salivating for this one, though… you guys are really in the minority. xD

  2. I’m in agreement with you on this one, Craig. This film certainly is watchable (I didn’t see the original), but there’s not enough Rooney Mara in it as I found the story line somewhat wanting whenever she wasn’t on screen. The Craig character, on the other hand, wasn’t that interesting to me.

    Granted, there are some wonderful directorial touches, but could it be that the excellent reviews have more than anything else to do with the nature of the lead female character, Mara’a portrayal, and Fincher’s pedigree?

  3. Count me in on the disdain. I saw this film last night and found it tedious, overlong and a prime example of style over substance. Yeah the leads were charismatic (God there was more smoking in this movie than the most celebrated noirs, but I guess that is the point) and I agree with you on that music video, but the psycho-sexual context became wearisome, and there wasn’t any emotional connection to anyone or anything.

    Three stars is fair enough for sure, but I’m inclined to go even lower.

    Nice review here!

  4. Amy, I really did like Noomi’s portrayal. I liked it a lot, but Mara’s performance showed it up for being a little one-note in my mind. To be fair though, it’s been a couple of years since I saw it.

    Sam, I could easily have gone lower in the rating, but Mara kept it above water for me. Though I didn’t much care for this one, I actually look forward to the inevitable sequel because Salander is more of the central figure.

    Pierre, did the rather shabby mystery not even keep you involved? I thought it might for people who didn’t already know whodunit, though honestly I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out.

  5. Craig, the mystery kept me involved enough, but that’s not much of a compliment to the screenplay. Therefore, I believe the biggest reason for the film’s success must lie in the Salander character.

  6. I agree about Salander. What’s odd is that I liked her better in the Fincher flick, but I actually think I prefer the original film overall. At least it was fresh feeling. This felt recycled. I’m not going to say the original is technically better, but I think I might’ve been more impressed with it at the time than I was with Finchers in the here and now.

    If that makes sense…

  7. Look, I haven’t seen the film because… I have no idea when it will open down here realy. But people wouldn’t be so negative if movies such as this or Let Me In would just admit they’re remakes instead of “re-adaptations.” If producers and filmmakers weren’t so keen in saying “this is another take on the same story that is based on the books not the films,” we’d be saying that yes, they were improving aspects of the other films instead of them being stylish re-hash of the others…

    I think what was good about the Swedish version is that Salander – and Noomi’s interpretation of her – was hard to like. She was rough and not very likable, but because all these things had happened to her, she felt compelled to root for her. It’s manipulative, but that’s how the books were.

    I thought that everything that was wrong with the books — which had a lot of focus on Mikael, and added a lot more other characters — was condensed into Salander for the films because she was ultimately the main character. The only bits that was taken out from the films that I wish they could have included was Salander’s background with her goodGuardian, but I think that would have clashed with the “mystery/thriller” aspect of the movie.

    But then again… a lot of people keep telling me the books are miles better than the films. xD

  8. I don’t know whether Fincher’s film is a remake or a readaptation of the novels or something else altogether. What I do know is that it’s not very interesting, whatever you want to call it.

    That’s a good point about Salander though. In a way, she’s interesting because she’s less immediately likable in the first film. She’s harder edged. I think Fincher softened her on purpose to make her sexier and more appealing. That made for a more “watchable” heroine, but in retrospect maybe one that isn’t ultimately as interesting or challenging.

  9. I agree it was long. The plot is incredibly complicated and Fincher’s intense focus on playing out the procedural aspects make this sucker run for about 20 minutes more than the narrative can sustain, but I liked it a far bit better than the original version. They’re not that much different narratively, but the original felt like a well-made TV movie to me. Rapace was the only thing that made it come alive, but I found her intimidating from the second she walked on screen. I found it hard to believe anyone would underestimate her, which seemed to be the crux of her story. Mara, on the other hand, is easy to underestimate but she definitely proved her worthiness as an opponent. Both performances are great, I just think Mara was given more room to work and fits the part as I understand it to be written.

    Since this a remake of a serviceable film, I’ll let the Panic Room rating slide, but I don’t actually agree with it.

  10. I will say I wish there were more movies in which girls kick ass and I hope Rooney Mara gets a chance to do a lot more of it in the sequel.

    Panic Room was silly, but it entertained me. Dragon Tattoo was more dignified, but it was terribly dull whenever Mara wasn’t around which was too often.

    Just for shits and giggles, here’s my snap judgement ranking of Fincher’s career with the caveat that I reserve the right to hate Benjamin Button just like everyone else if I ever decide to see it again and it turns out I was just smoking Christmas crack the first time around:

    Zodiac
    Se7en
    Fight Club
    The Curious Case of Forrest Gump
    The Social Network
    The Game
    Panic Room
    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
    Alien 3

  11. The Curious Case of Forrest Gump?

    Oh my.

  12. I consider Panic Room his most self-indulgent film and even though I like the acting (mostly) and some individual scenes, I find it a bear to repeat watch. “Oh cool, I can make the camera fly though solid objects!”

    But since a remake of Dragon Tattoo could be argued to be self-indulgent by all involved (and the opening credits, while amazing, bolster that argument), I guess I got nothing to complain about here.

    Push Benjamin Button down a couple notches, then push Panic Room to the bottom, and our lists are fairly similar. But the difference is, I actually like all of those films for the most part. I even enjoy Alien 3, warts and all.

  13. I enjoy them all too.

    Panic Room is indulgent in the extreme, but there are worse empty exercises in style (see: Scott, Tony)

  14. You get no disagreement from me on that last part.

  15. I haven’t seen the Fincher version yet but IIRC the original Swedish film was pretty much a very direct adaptation of the novel (with a few things left out that wouldn’t translate well from book to screen and a couple of things changed slightly so they’d work better on screen).

    Likewise I can’t compare performances, having not seen this version, but I did really like Rapace’s portrayal of Lisbeth and enjoyed every minute she was on screen (granted, part of that has to do with the character being so compelling to begin with). Rapace’s performance was spot on in terms of how the character is presented in the books.

  16. I know a couple of people who loved the books, but Rapace was not how they pictured the character in their heads and they were disappointed. One of them (Ryan at AD) LOVED Rooney Mara’s portrayal.

    I’m not saying anyone is right or wrong here, it’s just interesting how different people’s reactions are. I wonder if since you and Amy really liked Rapace, you might not like Mara as much.

    As I said above, I ended up enjoying her more (can’t compare her to the book since I haven’t read it) and it made me rethink Rapace a little bit.

  17. I saw the first movie before reading the books so going into the film I didn’t have any idea in my head of how the character should be so there’s that.

  18. Ahhh, that makes sense.

    Well, it’ll be interesting to see what you make of Rooney Mara if you see the Fincher. Do you plan to or is this not really on your radar?

  19. We can’t really scientifically judge it, but it would be interesting to see how people might judge one performance vs the other if they weren’t coming right on the heels of each other. On the other hand, if 10 years had past between versions it’s possible Rapace would be the “singular” version of Lispeth in fan’s minds too.

    I guess what I’m getting at is what is the half-life on the cinematic portrayal of a character from a beloved novel? Is it longer now that DVD/cable/digital downloads mean people can readily and reliably enamor themselves to one take over subsequent attempts, as opposed to 50 years ago when it was more common to re-adapt a popular work more readily and easily? Should we judge a film performance differently from the stage, where this sort of thing is commonplace?

    I’ll edit this to add that I know stage performance and film performance are radically different acting roles, but the basic issue is the same. A single film performance is canonized in celluloid (or bits these days), but a laundry list of actors can take the same role in the same production on stage. If nothing else, I guess I find the contrast of perception striking.

  20. Craig, it hasn’t really been on my radar. There are other things I want to see first, so I may end up seeing this once it’s on DVD instead of in the theater.

  21. Joel, I think too for a lot of people it boils down to their personal taste. Most people who saw the original movie seemed pretty taken with Rapace even if they weren’t high on the film itself. Others think Rapace was wrong but that Rooney gets it right.

    Having seen both, maybe now I should read the book and judge which one I picture in my head.

  22. Saw this last night and, while I liked it a shade more than you did Craig, I’m generally in agreement. It’s a fun, slick ride but I don’t think it’ll hold up to repeat viewings and — unlike Zodiac or Social Network — it has nothing to say about any of the seemingly controversial subjects it skirts.

    This is going to be a star-making performance for Mara, however. I never really got the intense love some people had for Rapace, who was fierce and enigmatic, but didn’t deliver much else.

    First, I think Fincher did a better job of hanging the film around Mara. That shot of her arriving at the detective agency via motorcycle will be the iconic image from this film for posterity (the rape scene is too icky and oddly sterile for most people to remember, I think). Second, Mara is simply more confident, more entertaining and more nuanced. She really does disappear into the role. Erica Albright is nowhere in sight, even when Lisbeth dons the blond wig near the end.

    I wasn’t impressed by Reznor and Ross’ score this time out. It was adequately moody, but this year has already seen similar scores used much more effectively. David Wingo’s Take Shelter and Fall on Your Sword’s Another Earth spring to mind as superior “mood” scores.

    The sound mixing, however, was quite good. And the credit sequence had me primed, albeit for a slightly more energetic film than the one Fincher delivered. The rest of the technicals are all strong but, as I feared, it’s all stuff Fincher and his crew has done better before.

  23. I could probably look more kindly in Dragon Tattoo if I wanted to. There’s nothing really wrong about it, I just found myself unengaged most of the time and I expect a lot more from Fincher. I also felt like it wasn’t really about anything. Though sometimes that’s the viewer’s fault for missing it, in this case I haven’t yet heard a credible theory that asks me to take it more seriously.

    It’s certainly watchable, but ultimately it felt a lot more like marketing hype and a great music video in search of a movie.

  24. All very good points, WJ. Mara’s performance has really stuck with me. Hopefully her next role will not be one where she is fighting against the specter of another actress’ work.

  25. I’m a big Rapace fan too. I read the book before seeing the film. Thought she was perfectly cast as Lisbeth for the reasons outlined by Amy and Alison. Haven’t yet seen the Fincher version. I’m not bothered by the prospect of Mara being different from Rapace. In fact I want her to be, and for the new film to offer something fresh while mining from the same vein.

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