The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Reviews

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

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Rape, Abuse, Graphic Violence, Nudity in Excellent 2011 (American) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -No-Spoilers-

Sep 19, 2012 (Updated Sep 19, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Mara, Skarsgard, Wright, Plummer, Berkof, Craig, Richardson.  Superb visuals. 

Cons:Maybe be too graphic/brutal for some

The Bottom Line: Excellent superbly acted American Re-make Version of superb Swedish-made dark mystery.  No-Spoilers

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

David Fincher’s 2011 American re-make of 2009’s Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoowasn’t necessary but manages to be a worthwhile 2nd adaptation of Stieg Larssons sordid, pulpish novel that started out slowly but built into one of the most exciting page turners you could ever read.

At 158 minutes, Fincher’s Tattoo is a long excursion into a dark story involving sexual assault, child abuse, and intense violence both suggested and eventually displayed on the screen (6 minutes longer than the original Swedish version's  theatrical release).  It’s remarkable it received an R rating considering the intensity of some of the scenes, the nudity, sexual abuse, violence and language.   There have been several other movies who simply by having a European open-ness about sex and nudity have been given the X rating or took the NR-17 rating designation to avoid being associated with pornographic films.  There have been other films whose intense scenes of violence and strong themes got them slapped with X ratings—even though their impact on an audience was arguably much less personal.  This one is definitely for mature audiences.

Comparing the two versions is inevitable.  If you were to see only one film version of Larrssons’ novel—I recommend the 2009 theatrical version or the uncut three hour European cable television version slightly over Fincher’s, but remarkably in some ways this is better made.  I guess it should be since it can use the first film as a test run and improve on it.

    The performances by Rooney Mara here and Rapace in the original are superb—among the very best in the last decade.  Two actresses playing the same character within three years of each other and both are must-sees.   The direction and screenplay of the original is slightly sloppier and less meticulous adding to the almost unbearable tension that develops in the story because you really aren’t sure what is going to happen and there exists the possibility that the whole thing will unravel and disappoint you at its conclusion (which it doesn’t).  (The second and third films are not nearly as good.) 2009's Girl with Dragon Tattoo reviewed here
It’s nothing short of remarkable that the performances in Fincher’s remake are almost as good in the original version.    Daniel Craig’s take on Blomkvist  is excellent, less stiff and more relaxed than  Michael Nyqvist’s portrayal-- but that doesn’t mean it’s better.   Craig brings an established charisma with him because of James Bond though his character is less assured, and has less sex appeal than Bond.  Craig’s is a warmer performance (than Nyqvist’s) making it easier to like him (right from the start) but that’s not better.  We don’t know the character or the actor who is playing him in the original and we aren’t sure if his flaws and quirks are admirable or heroic.  In the original, Blomkvist has recklessly pursued a story that has put the lives and jobs of others and the future of his magazine at risk.  There is a bit of resentment toward him for doing this.  In Fincher’s version, his co-workers and employees assume he’s right and so we consider him somewhat heroic.    Blomkvist’s  issues with women; ex-wife, mistress and daughter seem less cold and more sympathetic in the remake too.  It’s a minor problem and one you don’t really get to consider while watching Tattoo.

What’s most compelling and unique about the books and both movie versions is the complex character of Lisbeth Salander.  She’s something unique and different.  Lisbeth has had a difficult, tragic life but has re-invented herself as a sort of lone wolf 24 year old brilliant researcher and computer-hacker with a photographic memory who is tough, resourceful and nearly fearless.  Emotionally she’s a 14 year old Tom-Boy in a 24 year olds body.  She never smiles, and is determined to rebel and fight for her version of justice.  She’s dangerous, unpredictable but she’s fighting for the side we want to be on—against evil.

It’s really an impossible role for an actress to play because the character isn’t someone the audience is going to immediately identify with or accept. This is not the kind of role model we’d prefer any young woman (daughter, sister, friend) aspire to.   She doesn’t have  immediately  likeable qualities.  She’s got piercings, tattoos, dark make-up, short hair, is rude, unpleasant, sickly thin and is rude and crude.  She’s odd, rebellious and though an underdog she also amoral, bisexual and immature.  We can have sympathy and compassion for her circumstances but she’s also a mess.  If an actress attempted to artificially make us like the character or played it too cold and distant, we wouldn’t care about her.  We wouldn’t be mesmerized and interested in what makes this unique creature tick.  If a known star played her, she would bring something familiar to the role which would not keep us as interested in watching her reveal herself.   A performance of course is also dependent on a good screenplay, story, direction and editing.  Both versions of Tattoo have that.  It’s a little smoother in Fincher’s version, but because the actors deliver such uninhibited and raw honest performances it doesn’t matter that there’s a little more polish on the new version.

Rooney Mara doesn’t merely imitate the performance of Noomi Rapace from the original.  She has a somewhat different take on the character.  A lot of the differences are subtle, but she’s also a  more fragile and shy Salander than Rapace.  She doesn’t seem as anxious to always be the bull in a china shop or to burn bridges and leave few traces.  There’s a more passive aggression, and her fear and anger aren’t completely intertwined.  It’s the differences in the performances that make it quite enjoyable to watch both films.   Mara is more petite.  Her eyebrows are as pale as her skin and she looks away and often down to the ground in a seemingly non-confrontational and defensive gesture.  We realize quickly it’s actually an act of defiance for her to avoid contact in this way and is believable given her years of a hardship and abuse.  She wants to be invisible and her piercings, haircut and clothes are her armor, hiding her vulnerability and any possible sex-appeal.  Part of her craves social contact but it’s never brought her good things so her anti-social defenses are absolutely believable.

Fincher is also a more meticulous, confident, savvy and balanced director.   There’s certainly more gloss and slickness to the Hollywood version of the tale, then in the original.  The story-telling is slightly better in Fincher’s version, but the audience isn’t quite as involved.  One of the reasons for this is that we have many established, respected and presumably appealing actors in the re-make.  Besides Daniel Craig we have Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkof, and Stellan Skarsgard.   They make some of the darker unpleasantries of the story a bit less real and disturbing because we know these people are acting out a story for us.  That means the impact is lessened.  Some may view this as a good thing, but for most you should see the original version, wait a few weeks or months and then see the re-make.  Fincher also smooths out some of the almost melodramatic surprise reveals of the original.  We don’t have to accept some of the coincidences like we did in the original—but we don’t get that anything might happen feeling either.   (The book takes over a 100 pages to really get going but then becomes one of the most intense page turners you’ll ever read.)
Visually—Fincher’s version is an improvement.  Director of photography Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Donald Graham Burt have created a look combining photography and seamless CGI to create a dark cynical world that shows some of the most modern cleanest looking office buildings and expensive estates to cold frigid Swedish landscapes, rustic cottages and squalid flats.  The look is cleaner, crisper and at times more nightmarish.  The characters are intelligent, mysterious, complex, sinister, disturbed and frightened  and very little of what anyone says or does is not connected to something else.  Despite the 158 minute running time and the deliberate pacing, nothing is a waste of time, nothing is filler.    The actual story may be constructed like an old fashioned who-done-it, but the characters are complicated and flawed.   The procedural sequences are so stylized they never feel dull.  As certain scenes are being set-up, we aren’t  just waiting for something to happen but involved with the characters, interested in the details.   And paying attention to details like the dogged detective work we are watching delivers rewards.   There are so many worthwhile moments involving bits of business to watch for, the slower parts are even more interesting than the ‘action’ parts.

The Girl with the Dragonn Tattoo gives us a story told in 5 acts.  Actually we’ve got 3 main stories;  Blomkvist’s professional humiliation, Lisbeth’s struggles with being a ward of the state and the mystery of Harriet. We have a few others to explore as well:   Blomkvist’s personal life,  Lisbeth’s past, the     family’s struggles, and corrupt business dealings.   Revenge is important to several characters.  Several of these stories intersect because of the mystery and it drives most of the action of the story.    The darkest revelation that the story drives home is that if you are ruthless enough you can find out everything about anybody.  No one really has any secrets and no matter how much power and money you have—you can’t hide or completely erase the past.  There are also risks and costs involved in ruthlessly and unlawfully uncovering secrets and the past.  Who is willing to take on the risks and who pays the price?  And do you really want to know the secrets in the first place—are some best left in the past and best left not known?

We meet several people who have dedicated their lives to either keeping secrets or exposing them.  Some have ethical and moral guidelines, others do not.   Some are being destroyed by secrets, others use them like they  are a hidden energy source.

Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian integrate the mystery plot more seamlessly than the original film.  Some of the over-written novels’ sub-plots involving other  Vanger family members have been edited down or almost cut-out completely.  This works just fine for the film because the main characters are more complicated than the plot and the writing and direction allow the performers to deliver rich, complex and sometimes subtle portrayals.  You are rewarded viewing the film a second or third time by seeing more(not less).

Screenwriter Zaillian manages to parse the partnership of Blomkvist and Salander to its essentials.  Although they are different in personality, age, and skill-sets, they work efficiently and very effectively almost from the very beginning.  There’s no need to impress each other or deny they need one another.  They also immediately trust each other which are believable and important.  The plot is complex but is essentially a sealed room who-done-it in the tradition of an Agatha Christie Hercule Poiret novel.  The sealed room in this case is the Island setting, the suspects wealthy businessmen and members of the Vanger family.  The investigators are the damaged journalist Blomkvist and anti-social researcher Salander are an updated Hercule Poiret and Captain Hastings or Holmes and Watson.

You should also know the original title of Stieg Larrsons novel was Men who Hate Women.  It’s a better and more accurate title than  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.   The theme it suggests is explored both consciously and unconsciously with the plot and even more so with its characters.


NOTE: There are a few very minor spoilers (and absolutely no major spoilers) in my plot synopsis.

Fincher’s Tattoo begins with a couple of scenes establishing our main players and then explodes into a stylized music video credit sequence that on first viewing unfortunately won’t connect as a nightmare that Lisbeth is having, but rather just be a cool credit sequences (that might remind you of a Bond movie).  It involves a savage cover of Led Zeppelins “Immigrant Song” with a Karen O lead vocal that plays over images evoking sex, violence, birth and more.  We see a wet black oil being splashed, spilled or rushing over a shadowy woman in leather and tattoos or computer keyboards being flooded and then suddenly a fiery dragon rises taking flight.

Zaillian stays a bit more faithful to the way the novel sets up its plot and divides its time between Salander and the subject of one of her most recent background checks, the Stockholm based journalist and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) who has just lost a high profile libel case that was fixed by a wealthy corrupt mogul (Ulf Friberg).   Blomkvist has been contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) the retired patriarch or one of the most powerful, richest and most notorious families of Sweden.  Some of the members of the Vanger clan are unrepentant former Nazis party members.   He wants to pay Blomkvist a lot of money to investigate a personal matter.  Blomkvist needs money and would certainly appreciate disappearing away from the intense scrutiny of the media.  If he takes the job from Vanger  it means he will live in a cabin on the exclusive and somewhat remote island of Hedeby.  Blomkvist meets Henrik in person and learns that he has been haunted for nearly 40 years about the mysterious disappearance and presumed murder of his 16 year old niece Harriet.  Every year since her disappearance Henrik has been receiving gifts from Harriet’s murderer that he’s been unable to trace and he wants Blomkvist to investigate; study everything he has gathered about the case and see if anything has been overlooked.    Various members of the Vanger family live in large  separate mansions on the secluded  Island which has its own small village.  Some Vangers haven’t talked to each other for several years.  The CEO of the family’s business is  Martin Vanger, (Stellan Skarsgard) Henrik’s nephew.

Meanwhile another story-line is being told as we crosscut  (the film editors are Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall) between Blomkvist’s story and Salander who we learn is a ward of the state and must deal with a legal guardian advocate (Yorick van Wageningen) who is also a sadistic sexual abuser.  There are some difficult scenes to watch that are delivered with surprising explicitness that avoids even the hint of exploitation involving sexual degradation and later a brutal rape.

Blomkvist eventually hires Salander as a research assistant, and  quickly both professional and romantic sparks ignite.  The latest technology and some old fashioned research work  are shown with fast moving technologically savvy montages that visualize laborious procedural work in an exciting compelling manner.  It all leads to an exciting who-done-it –reveal sequence and then to a 4thact that plays a bit like a fast paced caper movie which rolls into an understated quickly told 5thact involving the relationship of some of the characters.

This makes Fincher’s film feel complete and finished whereas the original  Swedish film doesn’t wrap up completely and begins a related story that is the basis for the second film of the trilogy.

Additional comments and updates

 The effective music score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who won an Oscar scoring Fincher’s Social Network).

Fincher, Craig, Mara and some other cast members are reportedly involved in re-making the second and third movies of the series.  It is unlikely filming will begin until 2013.  There were plans to film them back to back.

Mara’s piercings in the film are real.  She removed all of her facial piercings after the shooting of the film ended  (the piercing and tattoo artist she used in real life who was not originally cast for the film was later used in the film as a tattoo artist).  Mara kept her nipple piercing because she did not want to repeat the painful piercing experience when it came time to shoot the sequels.  She also had a ‘merkin’ created.  Since her character was supposed to have red hair, she had the merkin (simulated public hair) dyed red.

The Standard DVD release of the film presents the film almost flawlessly.  Even dark scenes are clear and easy to see.  The 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound makes full use of home theater speakers creating a dynamic sound experience.  The dialogue is always clear and easy to hear.


 The Standard DVD extra is limited to David Fincher’s feature length commentary.

It is a dry detailed scene specific commentary giving some interesting insight into how Fincher shot the film and some production related anecdotes about the actors.  In the commentary Fincher also openly exclaims how CGI was used (seamlessly) in several scenes.  Most of the interior cabin scenes we learn were filmed using a Green Scene and the interior of the cabin (walls, windows etc) added later.   Some blood was added via CGI which I would never have suspected.  At one point Craig closes a refrigerator and a water bottle almost falls off the top of the fridge but is gracefully caught by the actor.  It was not planned and the business was kept in the movie.   The actor who originally played the character of Blomkvist is Michael Nyqvist.   One of the locations in Sweden was a coffee shop and by coincidence the crew discovered that  Ellen Nyqvist, Michael’s  daughter was working at a waitress in the shop.  Fincher gave her a small part with a couple of lines in the movie.

Additional Trivia

  Noomi Rapace who played Lisbeth Salander in the three Swedish made films  based on the novels did not want to play the role for the English re-make.  She had played the character for three years and felt it was time to move on.  Daniel Craig originally had a conflict with filming the next James Bond movie and was not going to be able to play Blomkvist.  The Bond filming dates were delayed and he was able to play the role.   He also put on weight to look more like a ‘normal’ character.

The film was released to theaters on December 20th, 2011.   December 20thhappens to be the date that the novel begins with in Chapter 1.   Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  was number three at the box office the week it opened.  The top two films that week were Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol which featured Michael Nyqvist who played Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish film  and  Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows which featured Noomi Rapace the original Lisbeth Salander.

Bottom Line:
2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a superb (if unnecessary) American remake of the original  2009 Swedish movie.  Visually it is a better film.  The slightly different story adaptation is a bit closer to the original plotting of the story in the celebrated novel but its impact on audiences is not quite as intense.  The performances, particularly by Mara are superb.  It did not seem possible to me that anyone could come close to delivering the intense uninhibited performance that Noomi Rapace brought to the role and do justice to bringing the character to life on screen.    Mara finds a slightly different way to portray the character and is almost as magnificent in the role as Rapace was.  Daniel Craig and Stellan Skarsqard performances are also excellent.    Whatever your reservation, this is reason enough to see Fincher’s version—but see the original first!

©2012, Christopher J. Jarmick  All Rights Reserved.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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