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Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Tattoo Redux"
5 stars

In the past, I have made no secret of my belief that David Fincher is one of the best and most consistently inventive filmmakers working today. To these eyes, he has made at least four unquestioned masterpieces to date ("Seven," "Fight Club," "Zodiac" and "The Social Network") and even lesser works like "The Game" and "Panic Room" are still expertly crafted works that beat the best efforts of most other directors like a gong. Hell, he could announce that his next project was going to be a remake of the old Rick Springfield vehicle "Hard to Hold" and I would be waiting for it with bated breath. And yet, I have to admit that the notion of him directing the English-language adaptation of the international best-seller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" did not exactly excite me when I first heard about it. For one thing, the idea of him doing another dark drama involving serial killers seemed to be a bit of a step backward, especially since he seemed to be making a definite move away from the genre with such comparatively offbeat recent efforts as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network." For another thing, the book was already the basis of a very good Swedish-language adaptation that was a hit around the world and made an international star out of newcomer Noomi Rapace--the notion of redoing it again so soon seemed to be almost as pointless as Hollywood taking another celebrated Swedish film, the powerful vampiric coming-of-age drama "Let the Right One In," and redoing it in a version that, while perfectly serviceable, couldn't help but pale in comparison with the original. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Stieg Larsson novel, complete with bizarre murders of a seemingly ritualistic nature, a journalist obsessively investigating a crime that had left the police baffled and a bleak depiction of a world in which the milk of human kindness had long since curdled, already seemed so much like a Fincher project as is that it didn't seem as though he could possibly bring anything else to the party.

Now that I have seen his version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," I find myself to be oddly of two minds about it. On the one hand, it is an incredibly well-executed thriller that transcends its admittedly pulpy and occasionally ridiculous source material with an extraordinary degree of technical skill and such a sure-handed facility for storytelling that even those who have already experienced this particular tale in its previous incarnations will find themselves gripped with a sense of mounting excitement and dread despite knowing more or less what is in store at every twist and turn. Even more impressively, the darkness of the material has not been tampered with in the hopes of attracting a broader audience that might not necessarily sit for the levels of brutality found in the book--in many ways, this is perhaps one of the bleakest and grimmest films to come out of a major studio in recent memory, certainly among those sporting a nine-figure budget and an equally massive amount spent on promoting it around the world. And yet, despite the obvious filmmaking brilliance on display on every scene, there is still a certain sense that he is making a film that is an exercise in technical finesse and nothing more--the kind of thing that he could presumably pull off in his sleep. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the results here prove conclusively, but anyone going into it expecting another transcendent work for one of the most gifted directors around may come out of it feeling slightly disappointed with the results.

For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid the previous incarnations of the story, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" begins as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being found guilty of printing libelous statements about a powerful Swedish businessman, a judgement that threatens both his livelihood and that of Millennium, the muck-racking magazine that he works for under (in more ways than one) editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright). While trying to sort out what to do next, Mikael is summoned to the remote estate of another wealthy industrialist, Henirik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), and offered a most intriguing proposal. It seems that four decades earlier, during a gathering of the entire Vanger clan--nearly all of them loathsome monsters in one way or another--his beloved teenaged grand-niece Harriet vanished without a trace and was never seen again. Because no one could approach or leave the estate that day because the single connecting bridge was out of service due to an unrelated accident, it stands to reason that another family member was responsible for her disappearance and to make matters ever more cruel, that person has been tormenting Henrik ever since by sending him pressed flowers on his birthday in the same way that she used to when she was alive. Under the guise of researching and writing his biography, Henrik wants Mikael to use his celebrated deductive skills to research the Vanger clan and all the accumulated evidence in the hopes that he can shed some new light on who killed Harriet. In exchange, Henrik promises to not only pay Mikael handsomely but will also provide him with evidence that will crucify the other businessman once and for all.

With nothing else to do, Mikael agrees and soon finds himself ensconced in a chilly guest house at the Vanger estate and sets about poring through the mountains of evidence and interviewing the other members of the Vanger clan, all of whom give him the cold shoulder to one degree or another except for the quite reasonable Martin (Stellan Skarsgard). Before long, he asks for a research assistant and Vanger's lawyer recommends the one that they employed to check out Mikael himself before hiring him. This turns out to be Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a pierced and punked-out antisocial genius computer hacker with a grim backstory of her own. Having been deemed legally incompetent as a child for mysterious reasons, she is still inexplicably under the care of a legal guardian but when he suffers a debilitating stroke, she is placed with Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageninsen), a depraved sadist who essentially rapes her in exchange for giving her dribs and drabs from her trust fund. Needless to say, Lisbeth is nobody's victim and exacts a brutal and satisfying revenge upon Bjurman that allows her some degree of freedom. Eventually, Mikael offers her the job of helping him investigate Harriet's disappearance and with her astounding computer skills and his old-fashioned legwork, they uncover long-buried secrets that may not only explain her absence but may also point the way to a serial killer that has been working undetected for decades.

The major problem with every version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the unavoidable fact that the story itself, especially after a second helping, is kind of a mess--a jumble of third-rate deducting, second-rate contrivance and enough thick slabs of techno-jargon to make even Mchael Crichton roll over in his grave. That said, it was written in a stylish enough manner so that readers could plow through its fairly unspeakable prose without recognizing its basic silliness and the sometimes lumpy screenwriting in the Swedish film version could be written off as the inevitable byproduct of telescoping the novel down to a filmable length and translating it from its native language into English. This time around, the screenplay is in the hands of Steve Zaillian, one of Hollywood's best writers and one who is not adverse to transforming material that might otherwise seem difficult to transfer to the big screen (as he proved earlier this year with his work with Aaron Sorkin on "Moneyball"), and he is stuck in the unenviable position of working with material that is inherently flawed but which cannot be radically altered without running the risk of angering the book's millions of fans. While there a couple of tweaks to the narrative here and there, he has, as far as I can recall, stuck fairly close to the previous versions and the occasional clunkiness in the screenplay--such as the extended epilogue that is tagged on the the story and which goes on long after its dramatic climax and dialogue along the lines of "I want you to help me find a killer of women" that sounds like the work of the hackiest pulp novelist imaginable run through Babelfish two or three times--is almost always borne of his faithfulness to the material. On the most basic level, the story does work in a crudely effective manner and still holds up reasonably well, possibly because the twists and turns are so silly and forgettable at times that even veterans of the various versions may have forgotten them over time.

However, if "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" does nothing else, it certainly proves the adage that, as The Who once said so memorably, "It's the singer, not the song" because while the story as a whole is little more than an amalgam of cliches spiked with bits of raw ugliness, David Fincher and his crew have presented it in such a stylish and engrossing manner that I found myself willing to forgive most of its dramatic faults. From its arresting opening credits, a sequence that is in many ways more thrilling than most full-length movies of recent vintage, to its equally gripping finale, Fincher and his team of top-tier colleagues have put together an absolutely stunning cinematic experience that is never less than compulsively watchable. He keeps things going without every allowing the story to get bogged in the kind of minute details that might have otherwise brought a story like this down and, with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the entire thing is a sumptuous visual experience that contains nary a dull shot yet never overwhelms viewers with flashy or distracting visuals. Reuniting with Fincher after their Oscar-winning collaboration on "The Social Network," musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose have put together another spellbinding soundtrack that quietly and efficiently adds another level of quiet dread to the proceedings without going overboard as well. Make no mistake about it, if you want an example of what state-of-the-art commercial filmmaking is at its highest level these days, one needs to go no further than this film and in virtually every conceivable category save for one, this version blows the Swedish iteration away, even though that was a perfectly good film in its own right.

In fact, there is only one major category in which the Swedish version trumps Fincher's but it is certainly a key one--the depiction of Lisbeth Salander, the character who is, when all is said and done, the heart of not just this story but of the entire trilogy to boot. On the page, the character was interesting enough but seemed to be more of an amalgamation of self-consciously "edgy" elements than an actual person--her exploits were entertaining enough but on the grand scale of plausible fictional characters, she ranked somewhere along the same level as Clive Cussler's immortal Dirk Pitt. However, the producers of the Swedish films had the incredible good fortune to stumble upon Noomi Rapace, a relatively unknown but incredibly charismatic actress who somehow managed to transform a character as unlikely as Lisbeth into a genuinely believable person, one so absolutely compelling that even as the subsequent films drifted away thanks to increasingly ridiculous storylines, she managed to single-handedly keep things more or less on track, at least during the times when she was on the screen. This time around, Fincher has recruited relative newcomer Rooney Mara, best known to most viewers from the opening of "The Social Network," where she played the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg in one of the great break-up scenes in film history, and while she delivers a technically fine performance, she just lacks the palpable force of personality that Rapace brought to the role. When Rapace appeared on the screen, there was a genuine sense of danger and a feeling that anything could potentially happen. With Mara, on the other hand, you get someone who hits their marks properly and everything but whose "edginess" seems to have been borne of fashion magazines than of a real sense of rebellion against the world that has mistreated her for so long. That said, she is good but for a role like this and with the footsteps she is following in, "good" simply isn't enough. If Rapace is to Lisbeth as Sean Connery is to James Bond, then Mara is closer to Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan--a perfectly decent substitute that will never be mistaken for the real thing anytime soon.

Make no mistake about it--"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is tremendously entertaining, albeit in the darkest manner possible, and serves as further proof that a crappy book in the hands of a gifted filmmaker can result in a great film (as titles as varied as "Jaws," "The Godfather" and "The Bridges of Madison County" have demonstrated). Fans of the saga will be relieved to learn that it has survived its latest incarnation virtually intact while newcomers should find themselves sparking to its considerable achievements as well, provided that they aren't completely put off by the equally considerable levels of violence, sexual brutality and all-around unpleasantness. Most importantly, it once again demonstrates that David Fincher is one of the most compelling filmmakers around today--a man who seems absolutely incapable of making a film that is not interesting or compelling to one degree or another. However, even his most ardent proponents would have to admit that he isn't really doing anything notable here other than giving the four-star treatment to two-star material. My guess is that if this film is as much of a success as many are predicting, he will no doubt be offered ridiculous amounts of money in order to help the inevitable adaptations of "The Girl who Played with Fire" and "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." My hope is that he spits the gold-plated bit and leaves them to others in order to go and do something closer to his heart and head--with so few truly unique cinematic talents working today, why waste several years of the career of one on stuff that we already know he can do when he could be off doing something potentially extraordinary instead?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21277&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/19/11 18:41:35
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User Comments

8/25/18 Joely Richards Rooney Mara was great. Her anal-rape scene inspired me to try anal sex with my college bf. 5 stars
9/12/17 morris campbell good but grim 4 stars
5/27/13 Luisa slow paced but deliciously graphic and entertaining 3 stars
9/03/12 Courtney Amazing cinematography and soundtrack. Another masterfully done movie by Fincher. 5 stars
4/20/12 mr.mike Well done , Fincher is an A-1 director. 4 stars
4/06/12 The Taitor Very good acting, plenty of suspense, drama, and surprises 4 stars
3/25/12 Fazon Sheriff Technically astute, competently structured, well acted and very engaging 4 stars
3/23/12 Les S. Disturbingly interesting but not as well crafted as the book itself. 3 stars
3/19/12 Millie Maelstrom Lisbeth Salander is hardly any more heroic than Hannibal Lecter and WAY less fascinating. 1 stars
2/19/12 Girl with the draggin' Snafu Proof + that neither the Christianization nor Gothicization of Scandinavia were good things 1 stars
2/14/12 jc rooney mara is indeed the lisbeth salander that i've imagined. the film! a must-see movie! 4 stars
2/06/12 KingNeutron Very hard to follow if you havent read the book- 3rd star is for Rooney's performance 3 stars
1/28/12 M Predictable, without the disturbinmg scenes this would be a bore 2 stars
1/24/12 Devin Sabas the stars of this movie are fincher and the score. i liked it 4 stars
1/12/12 Donald Hallett this movie was at no point entertaining , not worth the time it took to watch 1 stars
1/01/12 Smitty Noomi Repace made Rooney Mara look like Bambi in comparison. See the original. 3 stars
12/25/11 cooler watch the original instead 1 stars
12/23/11 Rob Riveting ! 5 stars
12/22/11 JW Great visual storytelling but, like the 2009 film, the problem seems to be the book itself! 3 stars
12/22/11 Bob Dog Skip the US remake and watch the 2009 original. 2 stars
12/20/11 Stacie Clark disturbing, but excellent 5 stars
12/20/11 Andy This is just as good as the Swedish version. A well make film 5 stars
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  21-Dec-2011 (R)
  DVD: 20-Mar-2012

  26-Dec-2011 (18)

  21-Dec-2011 (MA)
  DVD: 20-Mar-2012

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