The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

6:00 AM PST 12/13/2011 by Todd McCarthy
Columbia TriStar

Director David Fincher's retelling of Stieg Larsson's tale of depravity is masterful, without getting under your skin.

In the end, there's not much extra even David Fincher can bring to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This technically stellar Hollywood telling of one of the great literary sensations of recent times is highlighted by a bewitching performance from Rooney Mara as punked-out computer-research whiz Lisbeth Salander and remains an absorbing story, as it was on the page and in the 2009 Swedish screen version. But for all of the skill brought to bear on it, the film offers no surprises in the way it's told (aside from a neatly altered ending) in what, for some, will be the third go-round. Dedicated Fincher fans are likely to find this redo rather more conventional and less disturbing than Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac.

Although Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish adaptation was solid, if not particularly stylish, and boasted a fine cast, there was cause to suspect that one of today's best American directors would bring something extra to this exactingly lurid tale of a disgraced journalist and his kinky accomplice. From the outset, it's unmistakably a Fincher film: the superlatively sharp visuals, the immaculate design, the innate knack for melding sound and music, the chill evoked from both modern cities and open spaces, the beautiful people marked by deep scars and flaws.

The director and his crafty scenarist, Steven Zaillian, skate through the exposition -- very quickly, we learn (or are reminded) that seasoned journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has had his reputation and bank account wiped out by losing a libel case brought by scammy big-bucks investor Wennerstrom and that, with the inducement of a hefty payday and a promise of helping him nail Wennerstrom down the road, he has accepted a job from the Vanger family patriarch, Henrik (Christopher Plummer), to investigate the disappearance of his 16-year-old niece, Harriet, back in 1966.

With the cover of writing a biography of the courtly Henrik, Blomkvist hunkers down in a chilly cottage on Henrik's vast estate in the north of Sweden just after Christmas and meets assorted family members, the most affable of whom seems to be Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), brother of the missing Harriet.

Back in Stockholm, Vanger attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) has employed wild-girl researcher Salander -- whose computer skills are as impressive as her manners are atrocious -- to check out Blomkvist. Festooned with multiple piercings and tattoos and an antisocial attitude, the slightly built Salander remains a ward of the state whose new piggish guardian coerces her into sexual favors, then rape, in exchange for the money she's due. Her astonishing revenge, clearly depicted here but not lingered over, is one for the annals.

The film pushes through all of these preliminaries, not with haste, exactly, but in such a compressed way that there is little sense of gently enveloping the viewer in the narrative web.

As readers will know, things get very hairy in the basement of a Vanger home, though Fincher stops short of making this as horrific as it might have been.

Largely stripped of the political core with which novelist Larsson equipped him, Blomkvist is a fractionally less interesting character here than in the Swedish version, and Craig, while entirely watchable, doesn't reveal much of what's going on inside him. His mild Swedish inflections in early scenes soon give way to a straight English accent.

So it's Mara's movie for the taking, and she snatches it in dramatic fashion. Unforgettable in the opening scene of The Social Network, she had yet to be tested by a demanding role, but Fincher's belief in her is borne out in a dominating performance of submerged rage, confidence and defiance. Baring all in several sex scenes, both coerced and consensual, she goes all the way in a performance that compares favorably to that of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version. She's the real deal.

It almost goes without saying that all craft contributions, visual and aural, are exemplary.

There was never a question Fincher was the perfect director for this job. But in his best and most unnerving films, there's a sense of him pushing deeper, darker and beyond where most filmmakers go into the unknown -- areas you enter at your own risk. As the only intrigue and unanswered questions here involve Lisbeth herself, Dragon Tattoo is too neatly wrapped up, too fastidious to get under your skin and stay there.

Release date Dec. 21 (Sony)
Cast Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard
Director David Fincher
Rated R, 158 minutes

comments powered by Disqus