CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: The interior of a cabin on a tiny island in Sweden. It has recently snowed outside. L.L. SOARES is sitting in front of a roaring fire when MICHAEL ARRUDA comes in from outside)
LS: You made it!
MA: Barely! What a friggin drive I just had! There was a turned-over gasoline truck on the bridge back there, and the roads were icy. Jeesh!
LS: Now that you’re here, we can review THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
MA: And the heat in the car wasn’t working. I’m freezing!
LS: Take a seat, pal. I’ve got a steaming hot mug of cocoa waiting for you, with four marshmallows on top, just the way you like it.
MA: Errr… thanks.
LS: So shall I begin this one?
MA: If you don’t mind, I sure would like to warm up— you’re being awfully nice. Too nice. But since I need to thaw out, I’ll have to deal with that later. Sure, start the review.
LS: For the three people out there who have never heard of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it began as the first book of a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. The books became a huge sensation throughout Europe and bestsellers in America as well. There is a trilogy of films based on the books as well—all made in Sweden in 2009.
When I walked in to the new version of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I have to admit, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea. The original Swedish film is really good, and I couldn’t see the point of remaking it. Much like the remake of another Swedish film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008—it was the remade in English as 2010’s LET ME IN), it seemed unnecessary to me. Could that many Americans be so averse to foreign films and subtitles that they would avoid the Swedish films? The answer, it seems, is yes. Which is why an American version was rushed into production.
MA: I don’t think it’s just a matter of Americans being averse to foreign films. I think it’s also because American theaters choose not to show foreign movies, and so those of us who don’t live in big cities don’t get the opportunities to see these movies on the big screen.
LS: In another director’s hands, DRAGON TATTOO could have been a big letdown, or at most a by-the-numbers copy of the Swedish version (directed by Niels Arden Oplev). But the new version is directed by David Fincher. This is the same guy who burst onto the scene back in 1995 with SEVEN, after a career directing music videos, and who gave us such great flicks as FIGHT CLUB (1999 – and still my favorite of his films), ZODIAC (2007) and the Oscar-nominated THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). Fincher is a filmmaker at the top of his game, and he isn’t afraid to take on risky material.
And that’s the part that intrigues me. DRAGON TATTOO is some very dark stuff. It’s not breezy, light mainstream storytelling. There is a lot of nudity and violence in this story. And Fincher doesn’t shy away from that in his version, thankfully. But it’s so dark, I’m still puzzled why it became such a big hit with readers and filmgoers.
MA: Strangely, in spite of the dark subject matter and a couple of disturbing scenes, as a whole, I didn’t find this movie as dark as I expected.
(There is a knock at the door, and LS answers it. It’s FROSTY THE SNOWMAN)
FROSTY : Happy Birthday!
LS: It’s not my birthday. What do you want?
FROSTY: Um…sorry….I don’t have a clue. I’m a complete moron.
(LS closes the door)
LS: As DRAGON TATTOO begins, we are introduced to the two main characters via separate storylines. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a journalist and the co-editor of the magazine Millenium, and he has just been convicted of libel against the corrupt head of a corporation named Wennerstrom. One of his sources turned out to be unreliable (maybe it was even a set-up) and, without proper proof of his claims, Blomkvist is found guilty and given an exorbitant fine to pay (that eats up most of his life savings). Humiliated and with a damaged journalistic reputation, Blumquist takes a leave of absence from Millenium (which is in bad shape financially), to take on an unexpected job for another rich businessman, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who wants him to use his exceptional research skills to solve the decades-old mystery of what happened to his niece, Harriett Vanger, who disappeared many years before and is believed to have been murdered. Vanger thinks the killer is someone in his family. He gives Blomkvist access to documents and photographs and asks him to crack the case. This involves staying in a cabin on the island the Vangers own in Sweden, on the grounds of their vast estate, within walking distance of the houses of several other family members, including Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), the new head of the Vanger Corporation now that family patricarch Henrik has retired, and Vanger’s brother Harald, a reclusive, avowed Nazi, to name just two.
In fact, there are several Nazis in the Vanger family history. Vanger gives Blomkvist the cover that he is writing the old man’s memoirs, in case the family members get too suspicious, while he is really trying to determine what happened to Harriett.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a tattooed and pierced goth girl who happens to be an expert hacker and investigator. She’s the one who did an extensive (and somewhat illegal) background check on Blomkvist before Vanger decided to hire him. Lisbeth is also a ward of the state, due to a history of violence and arrests dating back to her childhood, and has to deal with state-appointed guardians to get access to the money she inherited from her family. Her most recent guardian has had a stroke, and her new one, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageninen, in a great performance) is a vile and brutal bully who is not above rape to get what he wants. Of course, since he controls the purse strings to Lisbeth’s finances, he assumes she has to do whatever he demands. He’s wrong.
Lisbeth gets her revenge on him in quite an elaborate way, letting us know early on that this skinny, quiet punk rock chick is someone you don’t want to cross. She’s as tough as nails and has a strong desire to put the monsters of the world in their place.
Blomkvist finds out about Lisbeth when he decides he needs a research assistant to help investigate the Vangers, and he finds out about the file she originally collected on him. She found out things no one else knew, and Blomkvist is both impressed and horrified by Lisbeth’s investigative abilities. But he realizes this is exactly the person he needs on the case.
The two storylines intersect as Lisbeth and Blumquist team-up to find out who is the sadistic murderer of several women throughout the years—this goes far beyond Harriett—and put an end to the mystery of the Vanger family. In fact that’s how Blomkvist gets Lisbeth to work with him, telling her they are tracking down “a killer of women.” As soon as she hears that, Lisbeth is on board.
The rest of the movie involves a lot of interviews with family members and other possible witnesses (conducted by Blomkvist) and lots of digging through files and photographs (mostly done by Lisbeth). This doesn’t sound exciting—a big chunk of the film is about these two people researching the crimes—and yet, if anyone can make such things exciting, it’s Fincher. Don’t forget, this is the same man who made the story of Facebook—a seemingly unfilmable task—dynamic, in THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
MA: This is part of what I was talking about, regarding the movie not being as dark as I expected. I didn’t find these scenes of research and investigation all that exciting. I thought they detracted from the dark tone of the movie. I would have rather the film spent more time on Henrik Vanger’s despised family.
LS: By the time we get to the last half hour, and the discovery of the killer, the movie has built up quite a head of steam and we’ll follow Fincher anywhere at that point.
MA: I guess. I thought it went on too long. I was ready to follow Fincher to the exits.
(There’s another knock at the door. MA gets up this time and finds SANTA CLAUS standing in the doorway)
SANTA: HoHoHo. Have you been a good little boy?
MA: It’s the day after Christmas. Aren’t you supposed to be home? And I’m not a little boy, I ‘m a grown man.
SANTA: Oh yeah! I guess I had a little too much egg nog last night after my rounds.
(ELVES appear and pull SANTA away)
ELF: Come with us, Santa. Time to go sober up.
SANTA: I don’t want to! You little boys are going to get coal in your stockings!
ELF: We’re not little boys, we’re elves.
(MA closes the door)
LS: The writing (Steven Zaillian wrote the screenplay) and direction are terrific here. Since it covers most of the same events as the Swedish film, I was concerned I’d find the remake boring, but, for the most part, it wasn’t. Fincher is able to take material already portrayed by another director and other actors, and make it his own.
MA: Here, I agree with you. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO isn’t boring. It’s just slow in parts, and a movie with as many interesting characters as this one has, shouldn’t be slow at all.
LS: The acting is top-notch as well. Daniel Craig is believable and determined as Blomkvist, Rooney Mara is intense and cobra-like (and at times, vulnerable) as Lisbeth, and even actors in smaller roles like Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson (as Anita Vanger—who lives in London) and Robin Wright as Blomkvist’s co-editor of Millenium (and lover), are exceptionally good here.
But my biggest praise has to go to Rooney Mara. As Lisbeth, she is a force of nature here, just as good in her way as Noomi Rapace was in the Swedish film versions. This is a difficult role, involving lots of nudity, some humiliation, and violence, and Mara doesn’t flinch once. She’s more than up to the task at hand and becomes Lisbeth Salander. In fact, she’s almost too good.
MA: I agree. It’s a courageous performance by Mara, by far the best one in the movie. And you’re right about her becoming Lisbeth Salander. Not once did I think “here’s an actress really acting.” I believed Lisbeth was a real person. It’s an extremely convincing performance.
As a fan of Daniel Craig, he does his job well, and so yes, he delivers another good performance. He’s easy to watch. It’s been a busy year for Craig, as we’ve seen him in COWBOYS AND ALIENS and DREAM HOUSE, and while I might have enjoyed his role better in COWBOYS, I think his best performance of the three was right here in this movie.
I also enjoyed Christopher Plummer, as I thought he delivered a strong performance, much more enjoyable than his forgettable turn earlier this year in the dreadful PRIEST. And of course you can always count on Stellan Skarsgard, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
LS: I was saying Mara’s almost too good as Lisbeth because, you see, one problem I had with the original film, as well as this version, is that Blomkvist is a much less interesting character than Lisbeth.
MA: I definitely agree with that.
LS: In the Swedish films, Blomkvist is played by Michael Nyqvist, and while his character is crucial to the storyline, and more or less the main character of the trilogy, his story is pretty much second-rate compared to Lisbeth’s. Here, it’s not much different. Daniel Craig is fine as Blomkvist, and makes him as interesting as he can be. But I thought some of his scenes were a little slow.
MA: Yeah, they were a bit slow. I wasn’t at all interested in his relationship with his publisher or with his daughter, and I’m not sure why, except that juxtaposed with scenes of Lisbeth’s life, they didn’t compare. His scenes were ordinary. Hers were adrenaline-charged.
LS: Right. Every time Rooney Mara is onscreen, she’s electric. In both versions of the story, I wanted the movies to be more about Lisbeth Salander and less about Blomkvist. Her character is the reason to see these movies, and Mara is excellent.
MA: Again, I agree.
LS: The score is very effective as well. By Trent Reznor (Mr. Nine Inch Nails himself) and Atticus Finch (the two also did the score for THE SOCIAL NETWORK), the music accentuates the darkness of it all and sets the tone. The opening credits, featuring their music and nightmarish imagery, felt like a Nine Inch Nails music video, but it also grabbed me from the get-go. I was hooked before Fincher’s name even came onscreen.
So, for a remake, DRAGON TATTOO is above-average. The direction, writing, music and acting are all high quality, and if you’re a fan of the books or even the Swedish films, you’ll enjoy this version a lot.
I give it three and a half knives.
What did you think, Michael?
MA: I liked it, but not quite as much as you.
Unlike you, I didn’t see the Swedish version, but I did see the trailer for this one, and so I felt like I’d seen an entire movie. Yep, it’s another example of a trailer giving too much away. Thankfully, it didn’t include any spoilers, but it did tell me an awful lot about where this story was going, plot points I would have enjoyed discovering on my own as I watched the movie. Long before Blomkvist and Lisbeth partner up and work together, I knew this would happen. So, when it happens in the movie, it’s “Ho hum, I knew this already.” The initial trailer, which gave absolutely nothing away in terms of story but piqued my interest anyway, is the way I wish all trailers were.
But back to the movie. I liked all of Rooney Mara’s scenes as Lisbeth, and these scenes were as dark and edgy as I expected. The trouble is, a bulk of this movie isn’t about Lisbeth, and those parts just aren’t anywhere near as interesting.
MA: Still, I did enjoy Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. His scenes aren’t boring or awful by any means. They’re just not as compelling as Mara’s scenes, and it’s noticeable. Also, the family that Blomkvist is investigating is full of dark and disturbing characters, yet we don’t get to know them enough. I would have preferred the story spend more time on them and less on scenes of Blomkvist researching files and pictures.
You can tell this is based on a novel, because the story is full of interesting characters, but unfortunately, with the exception of Lisbeth, these characters aren’t fleshed out as well as they would be in a novel. We never really get inside the heads of these characters, and for me, this was a flaw in this movie.
I liked that this was a very adult thriller, with dark adult themes that weren’t watered down in the least. The film goes to some very dark places, both with Lisbeth’s personal story and the main mystery. However, that being said, the film stops short of really traversing into the demonic depths of human depravity. I thought it could have gone further. Most of Vanger’s pain over the disappearance of his niece, and his family’s feelings about this event is left unexamined, and the climactic confrontation at the end I thought fell short and didn’t quite hit the mark. I expected to be extremely disturbed by this ending but was not.
Short of a couple of scenes, I never felt truly uncomfortable.
I also thought it went on a bit too long, clocking in at almost 2 hours and 40 minutes. Still, it held my interest and I certainly wasn’t bored, but in all honesty, it never truly blew me out of the water.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a stylish adult thriller, a movie that does have a disturbing story to tell, but is never as completely edgy as it needs to be. I still liked it though, and I give it three knives.
(Yawns) I feel kind of sleepy. I think I figured out why you were being so nice. You put something in my cocoa, didn’t y–?
(LS laughs as MA loses consciousness)
(MA wakes up to find himself handcuffed to the bathroom sink. LS is using a tattoo gun on him)
MA: What are you doing?
LS: Hold still. I’ve never done this before.
(The tattoo reads: I AM A BAD CRITIC)
MA: Excuse me, but you left out a word.
LS (frowns): This will cost you extra. (LS returns to work with the tattoo gun.)
(The tattoo now reads I AM A BAD-ASS CRITIC.)
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) ~ three knives!
LL Soares gives THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOOO (2011)~three and a half knives.