Review: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a prime example of why you should pay attention to the messages a given movie is trying to send before heading willy-nilly into a theater. This is a film that is based upon a deeply disturbing series of books that spawned a deeply disturbing series of foreign films and which features the tagline, “The feel bad movie of Christmas.” If you read between the lines here, I believe you should be able to make an educated guess as to the kind of movie this really is.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a journalist whose career appears to be over. After publishing a scathing expose on a powerful Swedish businessman, Blomkvist is sued for libel and is found guilty, a finding that will cost him his life savings, his reputation, and a short prison sentence. At a loss for what to do next, Blomkvist takes a meeting with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an aging but prominent corporate leader. Blomkvist is presented with a proposition that turns out to be more tempting that he could have ever imagined. Vanger promises to give Blomkvist the evidence he needs to clear his name and in exchange, Blomkvist will attempt to solve a mystery that has vexed the old man for 40 years: the murder of Harriet, Vanger’s niece and favorite family member who went missing at the age of 16. With the help of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a socially stunted but immensely valuable private investigator, Blomkvist soon finds himself embroiled in a vast and complex cover up that threatens to consume every aspect of his life.

To describe Dragon Tattoo as “rough” would require that you change the definition of the word. More like “exceptionally brutal” and “not at all something you’d want to see with your parents.” I feel sorry for anyone who made the mistake of taking a post-Santa trip to the theater with the family without knowing for sure what they were getting themselves into. I was 14 when Titanic debuted and I had a number of friends who had their Christmas Day movie with the family ruined by the unexpected awkwardness of Kate Winslet’s breast popping up on the screen. Dragon Tattoo is approximately one hundred thousand times worse. Even the opening credits are a bit demented (though visually stunning) and that’s just a sample of the brutality that follows. Dragon Tattoo is about as raw as it gets for a mainstream movie and despite the fact that I had read the book and knew what to expect, it still made me squirm more than once.

If you can get past the cringe factor, Dragon Tattoo is a quality but ultimately flawed film. Director David Fincher put together a fantastic cast filled with actors who fit their roles perfectly. Led by Craig’s usual calm and understated demeanor, the performances within this film are strong to quite strong, though none compare to the work of Rooney. I don’t think this is an Oscar-caliber portrayal but it is certainly one that will move her to the top of the list for a number of high profile roles over the next few years. And as always with a Fincher film, the technical aspects of Dragon Tattoo are exquisite. From the score to the shot selection, this is barely a step down from The Social Network, which was nearly perfect from a behind-the-camera standpoint. Fincher uses every element like it belongs to his directorial Swiss army knife, heightening the intensity here, providing subtle detail there. Fincher is the master of creating imperceptible tension within each audience member, building it until you suddenly realize that you’re sitting on the edge of your seat and your heart is pounding. In this regard, Dragon Tattoo provides the perfect subject matter.

But where the film struggles is in the way Fincher tries to tell a convoluted, web-like story. In the book, author Stieg Larsson weaves together several stories that don’t initially seem to connect in the beginning and he does so in excruciating detail. It is a slowburn of a read but one that I found compelling. In order to present every concept within the book, however, Fincher makes the mistake of jamming almost every ounce of story from the source material into the film. The first third of the movie, then, moves at a rapid pace that doesn’t fit the story, the characters, or even the actors. There’s a hint of Aaron Sorkin in the dialogue but it doesn’t contain the expert craftsmanship that usually accompanies a Sorkin script and it doesn’t fit Craig’s brand of subdued acting. Moreover, Fincher tries to pack an excessive amount of information into the first act and none of it connects very well. As a result, we get a number of short, choppy scenes that don’t flow together and make it quite difficult to settle in. I’m a big fan of Fincher overall but I think Dragon Tattoo displays his limitations, or at least his weaknesses. Far from Fincher’s master work, it is nonetheless an intriguing and worthwhile film that you may not want to take in on a full stomach.

Grade: B+