REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing

Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing

Chris Luckett

Is it possible to review 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo without comparing it to the novel or the previous film of the same title? Is it possible to judge this adaptation solely on its own merits, if one has managed to avoid hearing the plot already, reading the book, or seeing the original movie? I’m sure it is. One thing I was less sure about, waiting for the lights in the theatre to dim, was whether I could do so, after falling in love with Stieg Larsson’s book in 2009 and falling even deeper with 2010’s movie adaptation.

If you are have managed to avoid learning the bulk of the plot by now, I won’t be the one to spoil it all. Put simply, the setup is an ingenious modernization of Agatha Christie’s “locked room” murder-mystery concept. 40 years or so ago, a family reunion was being held on an island in Sweden, accessible by a lone bridge. A car accident that day blocked the bridge after most family members had arrived. Some time during this same afternoon, the niece of the patriarch went missing. Her body was never found. No boats had left the island; the water’s currents were blowing inshore; the road was blocked by the accident; nobody saw her leave; no body was ever found.

Flash-forward to the story’s present, and the patriarch is still haunted (in more ways than one) by the mysterious and unsolved disappearance of his niece four decades earlier. He recruits a recently scandalized investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to solve the mystery and give the old man peace of mind before his imminent death. Blomkvist recruits a hacker with a photographic memory, Lisbeth Salander, to help him. Lisbeth is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo.

The clever conceit of structuring the modern detective story around an old-fashioned mystery premise sent Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s novel to a still-increasing 131 weeks on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list. Even more fascinating than the story, however, was the character of Lisbeth Salander, an introverted young woman with myriad psychological issues.

Salander was a cypher, with details behind her story only slowly being teased out by the author. The book’s two sequels, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, revealed the rest of her story, and the glory was that the character remained fascinating even after we all knew the mysteries behind her past. All in all, the first book had large pacing flaws, but was still a wonderful read.

In 2010, a movie adaptation was released in North America starring Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol) and Noomi Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). It managed a feat exceedingly rare in cinema: it was better than the book. The screenplay was a perfect adaptation, trimming excess fat you couldn’t have imagined the story succeeding without and giving the story a stark grandeur that the source material failed to quite define.

Additionally, Rapace gave quite possibly the greatest performance by a female actor since Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn in Monster. Just as the film was released in North American theatres two years ago, it was announced that David Fincher would direct his own version. Over the weeks and months that followed, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara were cast as Blomkvist and Salander.

So how is this version? Well, in a word, good. In two, pretty good. But as your opinion of it will likely be even more subjective than mine, the crux of your enjoyment will surely hinge on whether you’ve read the book and/or seen the first movie. As such, two reviews are almost required here.

For the most part, I will assume those reading this will be discovering the mystery of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first time. As such, one caveat for those who don’t know some of the subject matter the story deals with: this is not your grandfather’s murder mystery. There is nudity. There is blood. There is torture. There is sexual assault. There is rape. The original title of Larsson’s book, before the sequels created the need for titular similarities, was Men who Hate Women. Based on content, it’s easy to see why it was called that.

The movie’s biggest flaw remains a problem whether this is your third, second, or first exposure to the tale of Salander and Blomkvist. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian has very inconsistent pacing. The scenes that crackle the most and the real heart of the story are between Craig’s Blomkvist and Mara’s Salander, but it takes the movie over an hour before the two characters even meet. As well, there are 20 or 25 minutes of wrap-up, when five or ten would suffice. The biggest problem that comes from all of this padding is that in a movie with a running time of two and a half hours, the main act of the story only gets about 40% of the movie’s screen time.

To those who read the book, you may already understand where this problem came from. Larsson’s novel, for all its cleverness, had the same faults. The first half of the book was all setup of either characters or plot (which is why many readers couldn’t get into it) and had an overly long denouement. Watching this version, it feels like Zaillian, aware of the global popularity of the book, was afraid to change much at all. As such, the flaws of the book became the flaws of the movie.

For most who already know the course of the story’s twists and turns, the question is likely how Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara did in their roles, and how well David Fincher’s dark sensibilities and leanings served this adaptation. On the latter front, Fincher does a superb job. Aside from an oddly chosen opening credits sequence of ink, leather, and melting rubber that feel like something out of a James Bond nightmare, Fincher utilizes the same skills he used so well in Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, Panic Room, and Zodiac to give The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo real style.

As excellent as last year’s film version was, one area it could’ve used improvement was looking interesting. Fincher has a true filmmaker’s eye, however, and it is used to brilliant effect here. The Social Network, his last film, was brilliant, but it didn’t feel like a David Fincher movie. With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has the flair and comfort of a mechanic who’s been out of the garage for a few years and is thrilled to be able to use his favourite tools again.

As for Craig and Mara, they do quite admirable jobs. I suspect most people’s feelings toward how well they did will depend on whether they’ve read the book or watched the original film. I found the problem was not in their acting but in their casting. If you only know Daniel Craig from his action-star roles, it may surprise you to see him using more subtlety and nuance in this performance, like he was more prone to pre-007. He does well in the role, but still brings too much fitness and speed to the character. Reading the book, I always pictured the aging and out-of-shape journalist as being played by someone unassuming like Stellan Skarsgård; amusingly for me, Skarsgård himself is in the film, but as one of the supporting characters.

Most people were unfamiliar with Rooney Mara before this movie. She was in the recent remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but her most high-profile appearance was as Mark Zuckerberg’s (ex-)girlfriend in The Social Network. Judging her performance in this, she does a fantastic job. The biggest compliment I can give her is she does the best possible work she can as a character she just is not right for. Every fault I have with her as Salander (which, I’ll admit, I likely wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read/seen the book/first movie) are largely beyond her control (too young, too extroverted, too talkative, too attractive). With the handicaps of the screenplay’s inadequate depiction of her character and Mara not being right for the role, she does better than I could possibly have expected. She is not the Lisbeth readers will recognize and doesn’t reach the heights achieved by Noomi Rapace’s searing interpretation of the character, but Mara’s performance holds the movie and is the key component to the film succeeding as well as it does.

All of my criticisms may make it sound like I didn’t think the movie was anything spectacular. On the contrary, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is quite a good movie. The two issues are whether the movie works on its own merits (assuming you haven’t read the book or seen the first movie) and whether it works as an adaptation of the story (assuming you have).

On its own, it works, but barely. Most people I’ve spoken with who had no foreknowledge of the characters and story before seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo found themselves confused by unexplained plot developments and anxious during the first hour, waiting for a cohesive plot to emerge. The acting seems to stand out more to those unfamiliar with the characters.

As an adaptation, it succeeds on a few fronts that it doesn’t when standing on its own, simply because audience members know the crucial information left out of this screenplay and so understand motivations of characters and unexplained moments that newcomers will not. The casting is more of an issue if you’ve seen Nyqvist and Rapace as the characters or if you know the characters as they were in the books. I can think of no reader of Larsson’s trilogy that would say, “Daniel Craig is exactly who I pictured as Mikael Blomkvist.”

Because the sloppy screenplay trips the movie up for those unfamiliar with the complicated plot (as well as dragging unnecessarily for large chunks of time), it is not ideal for those new to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Because the roles have been cast in a way that shortchanges the characters, it is not ideal for fans, either. In the end, while the movie works, and even works well, it is an example of a perfectly good but unnecessary remake. It really adds nothing new to the story, and doesn’t succeed with its characters as well as the book did or with its pacing as well as the first movie did. It is the least powerful and least effective telling of a story now thrice told.

It does succeed on its own merits, but unless you’ve already read the book and seen the original movie, and are interesting in a new interpretation of the story, there’s really no reason to watch it. The best reason for the uninitiated to see David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is to spark interest in reading the book or seeing the superior 2010 version.

4 stars / 5

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