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Review - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

04 Jan 2012
David Fincher's take on the internationally acclaimed book
When disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) gets an opportunity to escape the limelight to investigate a 40 year old crime on an isolated island, he never imagines he’ll find any new evidence. But, with the help of uber hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the pair inch closer to finding out the truth behind a notorious string of murderers and might even be able to clear Blomkvists name.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first earned plaudits upon its release as a book in 2005, forming the first part of the massively successful Millennium trilogy. Naturally, a movie adaptation followed – initially in the form of a Swedish language version from director Niels Arden Oplev which went on to make more than $100 million dollars worldwide. Now, it’s time for an English language version, placed in the capable hands of director David Fincher.

Fincher has turned an unusual corner in his career. From early failure with Alien 3 and subversive flicks like Seven and Fight Club, the last few years have seen works both obtuse (Zodiac) and openly commercial (Benjamin Button). But it was the success of 2010’s The Social Network which truly legitimised his craft, making his next choice of project hugely significant. And Dragon Tattoo makes perfect sense for the 49 year old director, straddling the commercial in its birth in a successful book and looking backwards to the directors early years with a serial killer story with elements of the slow paced investigations of Zodiac.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a bleak and slow moving thriller, spending much of its time amid the quiet passageways of libraries and the lonely byways of the internet. Our heroes spend an unheard of amount of time with their heads buried in books and laptops, only briefly coming up for air long enough for another plot significant revelation.

Daniel Craig is the ostensible lead here and the film follows his investigations for much of the first half of the film, as he begins to unravel the web of lies inherent to the isolated and hermetic Vanger family. When he needs some help, in steps Salander in the form of The Social Network’s Rooney Mara to deliver some unique insight and possibly more for the beleaguered older journalist.

Beginning with a stark, visceral, liquid metal title sequence, there’s nothing warm about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – in weather, lensing or the interactions of its characters. Craig gets some minor moments of levity but the rest is serious and cold, focussed on the mystery rather than giving any real insight into the characters. On the one hand, it makes for a cool and stylish picture, on the other it gives the whole affair a hint of the procedural, of a nicely presented TV mini-series which wends its way from one conclusion to the next.

Having both read the book and seen the original Swedish film, perhaps it’s merely that there are few surprises for Dragon Tattoo veterans. The sudden acts of violence just aren’t as shocking when you know they are coming and Fincher doesn’t do anything new with these moments, almost seeming to shy away from presenting them in too explicit a fashion. There are times when I wished 90’s Fincher could have stepped in to really give the audience a cinematic slap across the face. And outside of the phantasmagorical title sequence (which knits imagery from the three stories together in a kind of liquid metal orgy) there’s almost no evidence here of the hyperstyle of films like Fight Club.

You might consider this a more mature Fincher but the fact is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very long tale at 158 minutes (even longer than the Swedish version) and some clever montages would have helped keep the audience in check. The mooted changes are minor and the considered pace of the source material makes it difficult for Fincher or screenwriter Steve Zaillian to make their mark on the material.

That said, this adaptation has its spry moments, improving considerably once Salander comes on the scene as the pair’s relationship slowly develops. Mara is earning a lot of attention for her performance and it’s certainly arresting, aided by her bizarre looks and an unusual physical commitment to the role. But her Salander doesn’t feel as introverted as Noomi Rapace’s original, often making eye contact and forming a bond with Blomkvist a little too quickly. Craig is fine, like Michael Nyqvist before he brings some much needed warmth to the film and it’s refreshing to see him play a less physical character. Supporting players are perfectly cast, from Robin Wright to the superb Christopher Plummer and a nice turn from Stellan Skarsgård.

Dragon Tattoo is at least technically peerless, with Jeff Cronenweth’s deep and often smoke filled photography wreathed in varying levels of black, contrasted with the stark white of snow. Subtle CG adds extra weather to the proceedings and also extends sets and scenes where appropriate while a series of grisly police photos mean there’s still work for physical sfx artists. After their Oscar winning success with The Social Network, scoring due Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor make a triumphant return with their cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song over the titles but the music can become a tad repetitive and jarring over the subsequent two and a half hours.

Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is best experienced without prior knowledge of the book or the previous film adaptation – making the rhythms of the investigation all the more engaging and the instances of brutal violence truly shocking. But even newcomers may find the cold tone, grisly content and extended running time too much to bear.