David Fincher’s juggernaut of a remake/adaptation/end-of-year-awards-movie/trilogy-starter – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – has probably been the most talked about movie of 2011 in many cinema lovin’ circles. Though I highly anticipated Fincher’s movie thanks to the teaser trailer that pounded the viewer into submission, I did a pretty good job of staying away from info about the movie (including the book and the Swedish film based on it) before I sat down to experience the Americanized movie. Go ahead, call me an ignorant American, I probably deserve it. But we’re talkin’ Fincher here, I felt I needed to go in blind.
Thus, I really didn’t know much about the film, except that the girl had a dragon tattoo and sex with Daniel Craig (you can never block all the plot details tossed around before a big release, can you?). I also was pretty afraid of Craig’s co-star, the 26 year-old actress Rooney Mara, who I proclaimed to be the most annoying mouth-breathing actress ever about 18 months ago when she starred in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
For those who are – like I was – unfamiliar with the story of the title Girl, Mara plays a hacker/investigator/badass named Lisabeth Salander. We meet Lisabeth because she’s investigating a reporter (Craig) for a seemingly rich dude (Steven Berkoff, aka the bad guy from Beverly Hills Cop, whose presence in the film made me way too happy), and as we follow her we learn an awful lot about her life. Lisabeth is a ward of the state, even though she’s 23 years old, and her unstable behavior and the failing health of her guardian lead her down some very dark paths in the film’s first half. The abusive relationship between her and the man who takes custody of her is one of the more horrifying examples of sexual predation I’ve seen on film, and will surely be a talking point for many viewers who go into the film not expecting to see such graphic events on screen.
The thing is, Lisabeth Salander is pretty much the spirit of vengeance. I’m not sure if that nickname’s been trademarked yet; it sounds like something they’d say about a superhero. But hey, Lisabeth Salander IS pretty much a superhero for abused women out there, and the story’s willingness to show off the character’s worst moments along with her great ones really makes the character one of the most triumphant strong young women to ever carry a film. Thanks to the material she’s given, Mara proves my earlier claims about how awful she is quite wrong – her performance is nothing short of fantastic throughout the film. It’s the kind of dynamic performance that can lift a film above its material, and Mara should be credited with a very large part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s success.
The rest of the film is interesting too, focusing primarily on Craig’s exiled journalist who investigates a 40 year old murder for a rich old man (Christopher Plummer) on a secluded, snowy island in Sweden. The setting is one of the stars of the film, and Craig’s interactions with the people on and around the island build a strong mystery throughout the film. Craig doesn’t do a lot of great things in the film – he’s certainly here to be the “straight man” opposite Salander’s loose cannon persona – but he’s more than capable of carrying the film when she’s not around.
I’m sure the people behind this story – from original author Stieg Larsson to Fincher to adapting screenwriter Steven Zaillian – won’t be offended when I say that the film would lose most of its intrigue without the title character. While the case in its backstory that surrounds Craig and Plummer and the island is worth consideration, Mara’s Salander is what makes the movie notable. I don’t mean to slight the film’s production values – it’s full of beautiful imagery and the sound effects and music are pitch perfect – but the presentation of Salander’s mental state and how it ties in to the loss and pain she’s experienced throughout her young life is what really makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fascinating.
In a manner that’s completely un-PC (and not just because she uses Apple products), Lisabeth Salander is a larger-than-life hero for young women who have dealt with abuse and are struggling to stay on track in their lives. The film’s final few scenes – which seem to run a little long once the main conflict is tied up neatly – do their part to cement the ongoing issues that will motivate the character going forward, and I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of Mara as Salander in upcoming years.
If the American versions of her story can keep the same edge that Fincher brought to this film, Mara could be set up for a good run as one of the most well-developed characters in Hollywood’s recent history. On its own, Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an endlessly watchable film with a technical mastery that cements the filmmaker’s reputation as one of the top filmmakers working today. This adaptation isn’t going to be for everyone – I can hear the backlash from the conservative filmgoer sect starting as I type this – but I think it’ll sit alongside the likes of Seven and Zodiac as evidence of Fincher’s skill for molding a dark crime thriller. It’s probably the most enthralling film I’ve seen this year.