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Josh Reviews The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

January 20th, 2012
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Let’s get this clear from the outset: I haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s original novel, nor have I see the Swedish film adaptation.  What put the American film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my radar wasn’t any connection with the source material, but rather my great love for the films of director David Fincher.  (Click here for my review of The Social Network, here for my review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, here for my review of the Director’s Cut of Zodiac, here for my review of Fight Club, and here for my review of Se7en.)  So I’ll be judging this film purely on it’s own merits.

Do I really need to summarize the story for anyone?  Even I, who had never read a word of Mr. Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, was quite well-acquainted with the basic story going in.  Well, OK, let’s keep it brief: disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) gets hired by wealthy, elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the death of his young niece, Harriet, thirty years earlier.  Eventually Mikael’s path crosses with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) a young, brilliant but extremely maladjusted computer hacker and investigator, and the two wind up working together to solve the decades-old mystery.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an extremely weird movie.  There are elements of true genius at work, but also aspects of the film that I felt were not entirely successful.

The most notable aspect of the film is Rooney Mara’s fierce interpretation of Lisbeth.  Ms. Mara dramatically transformed her physical appearance in order to create this character, but that’s just the beginning of the way in which she sunk into the role.  Ms. Mara’s Lisbeth is a haunted, withdrawn, almost alien creature.  The way she looks, the way she talks, the way she interacts with other people is distinctly abnormal.  There’s a humanity there, but it’s buried deep down underneath the fortress that Lisbeth has constructed around herself.  She is an abused and lonely young woman, but she’s also a superhero with extraordinary cunning, mastery of technology, and great physical strength.  There are times when Lisbeth is extraordinarily sympathetic, and times when she’s extremely difficult to like.  There are times when her thoughts and emotions are writ large on her face, and times when it’s almost impossible to determine what’s going on in her head.  Ms. Mara’s work as Lisbeth is the center of the film, and by far the most interesting aspect of the whole proceedings.  It’s a staggering performance, and one that stayed with me long after having seen the film.

The bulk of the movie — the middle two hours of this two hours and thirty-eight minute film — is really quite good.  I was rather taken by the central mystery story, and trying to puzzle it out along with Mikael and Lisbeth was enjoyable.  There’s a palpable sense of dread and creepiness that fills the screen as Mikael, and later Lisbeth, sink deeper and deeper into this case that might very well involve far more than just one missing-and-presumed-dead young girl.  David Fincher brings great grace and compelling beauty to the scenes of Mikael and Lisbeth tapping at keyboards, reading old books, and looking at photographs.  At heart an artfully-made whodunnit, it’s in those moments of dawning revelation and escalating danger that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really comes alive.

The early parts of the film, though, left me a little cold.  It takes quite a while for Mikael and Lisbeth’s stories to intersect — a bit too long to suit my tastes.  And while the hard-rock opening sequence (sort of a crazy version of a James Bond opening song/titles sequence) was really cool and a lot of fun, it felt like it belonged in a far different film.  But those are minor quibbles — my more serious problems with the film come in the closing thirty minutes.

First of all, for an almost three-hours-long film, the details of the resolution of the case were surprisingly muddied, in my mind.  (SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT TO AVOID ALL SPOILERS.  Still here?  OK, just how did Harriet create a new life/new identity for herself?  Who exactly did Mikael THINK she was when he met her earlier in the film?  Why did she send those paintings to Henrik — didn’t she know how that must have tortured him?  Maybe these things are made clearer in the book, but the movie, at least upon first-viewing, left me highly confused on those points.)

More problematic than a few dangling plot-threads, though, is that to me the film ends when the mystery is solved.  That we then get a whole new adventure — with Lisbeth undercover (as a girl — that’s very funny, actually) working to destroy Mikael’s nemesis — left me restless.  Emotionally, I felt that once the mystery was solved the story of the film was over, and it was hard to muster much interest in this new short adventure story that seemed like a totally extraneous extended epilogue.

Still more frustrating was the muddied nature of Lisbeth and Mikael’s relationship.  Was she doing all this, at the end of the film, in an effort to impress Mikael?  (Presumably so.)  OK, I can understand that.  But what did Mikael think of Lisbeth?  Did he care at all for her?  Did he give her a second thought when she was gone for all those weeks, in which time he apparently resumed his relationship with his former flame?  In the film, it’s as if Mikael totally forgets Lisbeth even existed, which strikes me as very bizarre.  I don’t mind having a character being depicted as a jerk (which Mikael would be, if he just enjoyed having sex with Lisbeth when she was around, and then once he was home decided to ignore her and return to his previous romance).  But the film leaves it very unclear, in my opinion at least, as to what exactly is going on in Mikael’s head.  I think it’s foolish that this fantastic depiction of a bizarre, independent young woman culminates in her being really sad that a crush has spurned her.  But, OK, maybe that could have been a heartbreaking ending to the film had it felt earned — had we been given more depth to the relationship (whatever exactly it was) that she had with Mikael, and more clarity on what exactly he thought of her.

The film is gorgeous, and there’s no question that David Fincher’s precise eye for detail and mise en scène is at work.  The man has a masterful eye for composing a shot, and for creating a complete world in which the film’s story takes place.  The coldness of the film and its world, in which terrible things can and do happen and even our heroes are deeply flawed, creates thematic connections with previous films directed by Mr. Fincher, such as Zodiac and Seven. Although he is directing a world-famous novel, the film still feels very strongly, to me, like a David Fincher film.

I can’t say what fans of the book will make of this film.  As a novice to the world of Mr. Larsson’s novels, I found the film to be a compelling noirish mystery.  Rooney Mara’s incredible performance elevates the film into the realm of something special, and if I ever revisit this film she will be the reason.  But I also found the film to be overly long, and with a muddled ending that soured me a bit on the story as a whole.

I’m sure the studio is hoping this will be the start of a film franchise, but damn if this isn’t the weirdest first-film-in-a-possible-franchise I’ve ever seen.  That’s a compliment.  This is an extremely bizarre, idiosyncratic work, and for that David Fincher and Rooney Mara have my admiration, though I can’t say I’m exactly overcome with anticipation for a sequel.

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