Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / ***½ (R)

Mikael Blomkvist: Daniel Craig
Lisbeth Salander: Rooney Mara
Henrik Vanger: Christopher Plummer
Martin Vanger: Stellan Skarsgård
Frode: Steven Berkoff
Erika Berger: Robin Wright
Bjurman: Yorick van Wageningen
Anita Vanger: Joely Richardson
Cecilia: Geraldine James
Armansky: Goran Visnjic

Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present a film directed by David Fincher. Written by Steven Zaillian. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Running time: 158 min. Rated R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language).

David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular novel from Sweden, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a dark, sometimes perverse, contemplative, yet quick-paced thriller. It matches up with some of Fincher’s earlier work, acting as a sort of cross between his superior thrillers, “Seven” and “Zodiac”. It bears little resemblance to the Swedish version of the film from 2009 beyond the fact that the stories are exactly the same.

It involves the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and the Goth hacker, Lisbeth Salander, from the immensely popular “Millenium” trilogy by author Steig Larsson. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the best of the series and our introduction to the maligned journalist and the far from conventional Salander. For much of the story, the two characters follow different paths, but those paths connect with Blomkvist’s investigation of a 40-year-old murder of a girl from one of Sweden’s most successful and most dysfunctional families. “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,” is all the appeal Blomkvist needs to entice the socially disconnected Salander to join him in the investigation.

Before they join forces, however, both protagonists’ lives are fraught with turmoil. At the outset the publisher of Millennium magazine, Blomkvist, has just been convicted of libel against a wealthy industrialist. He must pay a hefty fine in damages draining his life savings and leave his co-publisher, editor and sometimes lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright, “Moneyball”) in a tight spot with the magazine. Soon he is approached by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”) to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his niece 40 years earlier. He temporarily relocates to the Vanger family island, where he can escape his professional controversy and immerse himself in the Vanger family history. At the time of the disappearance, the island was cut off; leading Henrik to believe that one of the surviving family members is responsible for the crime.

Meanwhile, Salander is working as an investigator for a firm with dubious methods of obtaining information. Coincidentally, Salander did the investigation of Blomkvist ordered by Henrik Vanger. Salander is still a ward of the state at 23 because of some mysterious violence in her past. She must report to a state appointed guardian to have access to her income and to avoid institutionalization. Her guardian, Bjurman (Yorik van Wageningen, “The New World”), is a most detestable man who holds her money ransom for sexual favors and eventually escalates to rape. These are the most disturbing scenes of the movie, although the Vanger family secrets are just as steeped in human depravity.

Fincher manages to capture the dark underbelly nature of this material with his typically grimy looking camera work. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network”) photographs the cold Swedish land and cityscapes with a grey and sepia overlay that makes them all the more colder. If you were watching this movie outside in 10-degree weather, it would make you feel colder than you already were.

Writer Steve Zaillian (“Moneyball”) makes this morally reprehensible material palpable through his thorough fleshing out of the characters and plot. No detail is left for the viewer to figure out on his own. We’re immersed in a complex web woven by a killer that seems to have operated over two lifetimes and a family that has spent two generations building their walls up against each other. Blomkvist and Salander methodically gather and dissect clues that lead to a climax as surprising as it is inevitable. All this unfolds over the film’s two hour and forty minute running time at a pace that makes it seem no more than two hours flat. Fincher’s usual editing team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall craft the information and drama in such a way that not a second of film is wasted and the tension doesn’t so much build as it speeds us along through its thorough investigation of the facts.

Despite all the technological wizardry he employs, Fincher keeps the story firmly a character study. Daniel Craig (“Casino Royale”) anchors the film with his performance as Blomkvist, who needs all the anchoring he can get in his situation. But, it is really the character study of Salander that carries the movie. Rooney Mara makes her mark in this film after years of minor roles in movies, like “The Social Network”, and leading work in horror franchises, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. She graduates to full-fledged dramatic leading actress with her work here. She surpasses the stunning work of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original with her strikingly unique portrayal of a damaged yet fully functional heroine.

The Swedish version—along with the book as I understand it—has an 80s pulp fiction feel to it. Fincher has done away with the trashy novel atmosphere inherent in the plot to produce a dramatic thriller with the weight of significant entertainment. I almost miss the sort of trashy feeling of the Swedish version, but I have a feeling it’s Fincher’s version that will withstand the test of time. Like many of Fincher’s films, this one gets better the more you think about it. It’s a slow burn into the memory. While “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t as noteworthy a subject as in his masterworks “The Social Network” or “Zodiac”, it is heady entertainment.

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