The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

dragon_tattoo_posterColumbia/MGM (2011) 158 min. R

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Steven Zaillian; based on the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth; Editing: Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall

Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: K.C. Fox

Costumes: Trish Summerville; Score: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Stars:  Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Julian Sands (Young Henrik)

Sometimes I feel as though the only American horror stories that still seem worth telling anymore are remakes of Asian films such as The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call, The Eye, Shutter, and Insidious, an American original which qualifies by default (it was directed by the Malaysian Chinese-born James Wan, who grew up in Australia). Upon seeing David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 2011, I’m willing to make the same assertion for American remakes of unsettling Scandinavian psychological thrillers. The movie was based on the same source as the 2009 Swedish film directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace. 

GWTDT (1)Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, such superior crime chillers as Let Me In, Insomnia, Night Watch and The Invisible also found their source of inspiration in movies that hailed from the Great White North. This flurry of Scandinavian adaptations all share a characteristic tone and temperament that is unmistakably of that region. So markedly so that even when translated into Hollywood terms, the streamlined results aren’t entirely diluted of the power they had in their native tongue.

It’s this foreign feel which serves to confer a distinctive atmosphere to these remakes. The alien air throws us, makes us uncertain of whether the film is going to play by the safe and accepted Hollywood rules or remain true to its country of origin. Americanization can only go so far in glamorizing the source material, straining out the nativism. Of course with the smattering of actors of various nationalities all speaking in a babel of accented English (except for British star Daniel Craig), it takes a while before we get our bearings and actually realize just where events are set, but once we do everything seems to click into place and it all makes perfect sense. From its earliest days, Scandinavian cinema has been tied to two dominating schematics, both of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo possesses in abundance, howbeit unwittingly. Firstly, nature itself becomes a tangible character in the drama rather than simple backdrop.

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In Insomnia nature made itself felt in the midnight sun that never set, the perpetual daylight making it impossible for the characters to sleep, driving them to the brink of madness. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one feels the weather just as strongly in the harsh, unforgiving permafrost landscape which serves to snow people in, trapping them, making escape impossible. Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997), while undoubtedly influenced by the success of the similarly snowbound, but thoroughly American Fargo the previous year, was adapted from a book by Danish author Peter Høeg and featured this same intuitive feeling for the effects of climate on the human psyche. Of comparable American movies, the only other one that comes immediately to mind is the regrettable Josh Hartnett vampire vehicle 30 Days of Night, set during Alaska’s period of perpetual twilight. Even though this Americanization of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has modified events into a form more closely resembling traditional conspiracy thrillers and police procedurals like The Pelican Brief and director David Fincher’s earlier Se7en, such indications of what made the source film so special still linger.

GWTDT (13)From the moment Daniel Craig’s disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, sets foot on the private island owned by the moneyed Vanger family, whose patriarch, Henrik (Christopher Plummer), has hired him to research the unexplained, decades old disappearance of a favorite niece, Harriet, the weather is emphasized, becoming a palpable presence in proceedings. Even with a fire burning in the hearth, Mikael sits shivering beneath coat and blankets, and the use of snowscapes and associated weather conditions to enhance and underline his psychological state hearkens back to the archetypal early work of Sjostrom and Stiller. He’s been left out in the cold and there seems no forthcoming thaw for the chilly reception accorded Mikael by the press and media following a successful libel lawsuit brought against his newspaper after publication of a muckraking exposé. Despite the support of his editor, Erica (Robin Wright), he’s exiled himself to this Scandinavian equivalent of Siberia in order to escape from his disgrace and the unwanted public attention. If Mikael can solve this notorious missing person’s case Henrik assures him, his reputation can be salvaged.

GWTDT (7)Daniel Craig is at a point in his career when he seems to have finally come into his own. It happens to devastatingly attractive actors as they age into maturity and begin to grey and grizzle around the edges; it’s happening to Brad Pitt and Viggo Mortensen now too. Actresses who are young and attractive have a natural advantage given the sexist Hollywood system, but those very same qualities seem to mitigate against males being taken seriously as thespians, at least until they reach a certain time in life. As actors approach middle age, around the same time the careers of most actresses begin faltering, the industry can finally start seeing past the pretty boy façade, begin appreciating their skills and talent. Daniel Craig has been making movies for decades, but I never took much notice of him before he played the creepy Catholic priest assigned to assassinate Cate Blanchett’s queen Elizabeth. One certainly couldn’t miss him. He possessed the clear-eyed, flaxen-haired looks of an earth-bound angel then, which were cleverly played against his black shrouded character’s true, diabolic nature. The talent he evinced in that movie was sorely squandered in high-profile action pictures like Munich and the much publicized new James Bond releases, and better served in less assuming movies few people saw like Defiance and Infamous (in which his darkly dyed hair turned him into an uncanny clone of Steve Railsback). It’s only since Craig’s looks have begun to wilt that his career has really taken off, that he’s finally hit his stride as an artist.

GWTDT (15)Much in demand now, he’s been everywhere in the past few years, anchoring big budget blockbusters like Cowboys and Aliens  (where he was far better than the material warranted) and indefensible drek like Dream House with wife Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts all equally wasted. His eyes appear to be growing closer together, or maybe that’s simply an impression created by his blunt nose which is becoming more pronounced. Regardless, one is no longer so distracted by his looks that they can overlook the fact that he’s a truly gifted actor (he is English after all, and acting seems to come second nature to them). His fair, Scandinavian features, however, make him an unduly pleasing fit for his part here. He seems to belong to this Northlandic environment, a cross between matinee idol handsome Lars Hanson and gloomy, brooding Max von Sydow. It’s no stretch to picture him in an Ingmar Bergman film. Which brings me to the other notable quality The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has carried over, in whatever diluted form, from its source and which serves to likewise link it to the glories of Scandinavian cinema – it’s grim, guilt wracked, Puritanical tone, which was always such a stark feature of Bergman’s work, expressing Swedish theologies concerning religion, community, outcasts and God made manifest in a harrowing climate.


The crimes that take place in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have a biblical basis. It is revealed that the murders are being carried out according to verses taken directly from the bible, much as they were in Fincher’s Se7en, and the references give the murderer a sense of moral justification. He feels morally sanctioned in carrying out the will of God, a zealot burning with religious fury. With the suggestion of offerings and ritualistic slaughter, we’re led to believe that Mikael has been purposely lured to this island to become another human sacrifice, as Edward Woodard was in The Wicker Man. After all, isolated Hedeby is populated by equally deceitful eccentrics obviously harboring a deadly secret we’re afraid to learn the truth about. Moreover, it operates as a virtually autonomous principality, presided over by one all-powerful family that considers itself above the law. It’s effectively cut off from the mainland, connected to civilization and safety only by a spare expanse of bridge. The utter primitiveness of this GWTDT (37)environment is suggested by its identification as a dead zone where Mikhael’s cell receives no service; he must journey all the way to the mainland to use a public pay phone. Like the weather, this island landscape seems to further conspire to entrap its victims.

There are enough characters here to populate the novel, and we’d need a flowchart similar to Mikael’s in order to sort them all out. Fincher’s adaptation has boldly attempted to retain the convolutions of the book, allowing Lisbeth time to pull Mikael’s ass out of the sling a second time at the end, which is why the movie seems to run on for far too long after the mystery is wrapped. Rescuing him once was impressive enough (and far more dramatic than her high-tech espionage), so this just seems like overkill. There seems nothing Lisbeth can’t do, even GWTDT (20)glamming herself up in a blond wig and haute couture, proving how easily she could slip into Blomkvist’s conservative world if the need ever arose. As the film makers present her she’s a superwoman, and it doesn’t serve to ponder how she became so dexterous, a jack of all trades after living such a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence.

There is furious crosscutting between Lisbeth’s experiences among the lowlife and Mikael’s among the elitist Vangers, but the Oscar-winning scissor job by Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall seems so slipshod and haphazard, we fail to see the connections, or fate drawing the two together as I suspect we’re supposed too, until much later in the movie. We seem to be watching two completely separate and unrelated stories for the first hour or so, but once they dovetail, the paralleling begins to make more sense, building to an appropriate crescendo at the climax, where we don’t know whether we should fear the possible endangerment of one or the other. But then, the horror is blunted anyway. Because we aren’t aware of the full extent of the crimes, we don’t know how scared we should be for the safety of either.

GWTDT (16)The big screen format exposes illogicalities in cinema form that likely weren’t apparent, or were better explained, on the written page. Why, for instance, does Mikael remain on the island cut off from help after he finds a death threat on his doorstep and someone makes a bold attempt to take off his head? He behaves like a victim in some haunted house who doesn’t have the good sense to just pick up and move on (this entire creepy island is one big haunted house, where girls just vanish inexplicably into thin air). And though the movie was shot on location in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, the weather isn’t even exploited as effectively as it could be, used to snow Mikael in, making escape impossible, giving him a logical excuse to behave so foolishly. And if Jewish women are being targeted as a continuation of a Holocaust that never ended for these former Nazis, one would think they’d be pulling verses strictly from the New Testament to justify their crimes.

The script was adapted by Steven Zaillian, who penned Hollywood’s penultimate Holocaust epic, Schindler’s List, and he may have been attracted to this material because of its similar themes concerning Nazism and implied genocide. The cross generational murders are meant to be symptomatic of an institutionalized Nazism, the propagation of a sanctified cause in the psychos’ sick minds. They devoutly believe that, in their own small way, they’re still carrying out the Fuehrer’s final solution. Despite how perverted and sexualized it’s become in their hands, they’ve deluded themselves into believing the higher associations give grand meaning and purpose to what they’re doing. Operating on a fantasy level beyond your standard issue psychotics, their killings are carried out in a near religious fervor and the bodies left strewn about as warning, to put the fear of God back in the hearts of unbelievers.

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It means more to set this story on European soil, where the present is simply heaped atop eons of history. Sharing the same space, the modern-day subsists alongside haunting, age-old sins and buried secrets that have never been laid to rest. But this anti-Semitic theme isn’t stressed as much as it should be. It’s never accorded the proper weight due it in proceedings, and when the killer makes his lengthy confessional once cornered, explaining everything to us in that awful, contrived way screen killers must do in order to clarify and explicate the plotline, he never mentions this as a primary motivation. Consequently, it isn’t clear if the son’s crimes are prompted by the same anti-Semitic feelings as his father’s were, or if he’s just continued carrying them out because he’s inherited a similar taste for sexual torture. He mentions he targets immigrant girls, but not Jews in particular, and he may simply choose his victims because immigrants without papers or local ties are easier to dispose of with a minimum of local fuss. Immigrants are the new social undesirables, so he may believe he’s doing society a favor in equal measure to his father’s by clearing them away. His rapes and murders, intertwined though they are with Harriet’s disappearance, end up coming across like your run of the mill sex crimes, committed in this instance within the unimpeachable inner sanctum of the rich and powerful. We’re watching a Scandinavian Chinatown.

GWTDT (40)The movie is structured as a mystery wrapped within a mystery, and the mystery lying at its heart is Rooney Mara’s title character, Lisbeth Salander. The younger sister of Kate Mara, prior to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this little known actress’ most eye-catching part was as the girl who got away at the beginning of Fincher’s The Social Network, indirectly inspiring Jesse Eisenberg’s Steve Zuckerberg to found Facebook. The director knew a good thing when he saw it, immediately recasting her here. Mara’s performance makes us understand why the title role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the most coveted of the year among actresses of a twentysomething age range, and as a final seal of approval, she even received an Oscar nomination for her effort, though this is hardly the sort of fare or sort of performance that would normally garner the Academy’s attention. The fact that it did blip on their radar is evidence of how high-profile the casting had become within the industry. Rooney proved her commitment to the part by shaving off her hair, bleaching her eyebrows and getting several permanent piercings (the tattoos were only temporary). Normally the delicate looking actress has the gamine waifishness of a young Audrey Hepburn, which makes her transformation here all the more startling.  

GWTDT (17)We warm to her antisocial Lisbeth only as the movie progresses and layer after layer is stripped away, leaving her fully revealed to us, soul bared. Yet surprisingly Mara has no explosive emotional scenes, the sort we’ve come to expect in a breakthrough role like this. Instead she impresses us by expending her excess energy athletically, usually aggressively defending herself or others physically. It’s through her pained, pinched portrayal that we come to understand the controlling logic behind the crosscutting between her backstory and the similar case Mikael is working on. Like Harriet, we learn that Lisbeth too suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a father when she was twelve (the fact that she lives on McDonald’s fast food indicates she remains that emotionally arrested adolescent), a monster whom she subsequently tried to kill, leading to her incarceration in an insane asylum and placement in the care of a guardian as a ward of the state. She needs to be drawn into Mikael’s case; it’s the only way she can confront her own past and exorcise the attendant demons. 

GWTDT (28)Huddled inside a hoodie and shapeless, loose-fitting clothes, Lisbeth is crowned by an alarmingly prickly Mohawk indicative of the untamed, feral warrior she must keep safely in check. With her multiple tribal inkings and piercings worthy of a punk rocker, she’s attempted to make herself as freakish and forbidding as humanely possible in order to discourage unwanted male attention. She seems so frail (“I have a high metabolism and can’t gain weight.”), weak, scared and tremulous, she appears to be a walking victim, easy pickings, so imagine our surprise to see her chase down a purse snatcher who has absconded with her laptop. Easily retrieving her goods from this intimidating man twice her size seems all in a day’s work. She doesn’t even break a sweat, or miss her train. Despite deceptive appearances, she is not a shrinking violet to be trifled with, a fact which this dragon lady makes perfectly clear when she roars directly in her startled mugger’s face. She seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself, so we wonder why she allows the executor of her trust fund (Yorick van Wageningen) to take sexual advantage of her, at least until her ulterior motives are revealed. The movie includes what may be the most controversial anal rape since Last Tango in Paris made the topic suitable for dinner conversation some forty years ago. But such snapshots of Lisbeth’s own sexual degradation are vital to helping us understand the life she’s led and the sort of things she’s been subjected to. It’s necessary to explain why she would feel such kinship to and identify so strongly with a pampered girl like Harriet, brought up in a privileged world so alien to her own.

GWTDT (10)The original title of Stieg Larsson’s novel was Män som hatar kvinnor – Men Who Hate Women, and considering the misogynistic assortment she’s come in contact with (her father, the executor, that mugger), Lisbeth has understandably developed a phobia against the sex, rerouting her libido by engaging in less threatening lesbian liaisons which offer a safer outlet. Mikael seems to be the first decent guy she’s ever met (she pronounces him “clean” during her initial background check), the first one who doesn’t try to exploit her or force himself on her, though the fleeting fear that he means to grope her when he reaches across the kitchen table, causes her to flinch. Instead he respects her expertise, her incomparable skill as a computer hacker (displaying the intuitive grasp of technology his generation lacks), her photographic memory, her aptitude for criminal profiling. She’s turned on by his defenselessness, first aroused when he’s left incapacitated by a bullet wound and she must nurse him. They sleep together that night, though he protests that he’s too old for this girl with daddy issues as she insistently climbs astride him. She can respond to him sexually in a way she has never been able to with other men because she recognizes he’s weaker than she is. She doesn’t need to fear him trying to dominate or exploit her. She’s on top in this relationship, quite literally in their final sexual encounter.

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Bespectacled bookworm Mikael is a gentle man, but this selfsame quality which attracts Lisbeth to him in the first place also limits him in his work. His innate gentility leaves him incapable of getting his hands dirty, of digging up the skeletons that would guarantee a conviction against those who believe their actions to be beyond reproach. As Mikael finds himself increasingly in up to his neck, he needs this street smart, tough as nails girl from the wrong side of the tracks to keep his head above water. There’s an old Latin expression- ‘similia similibus curantur,’ which means ‘similar things are cured by similar things,’ and sounds very close to the movie’s axiom- “Evil shall with Evil be expelled.” As suggested by this tagline, Lisbeth, with her morally questionable methods of vigilante justice, is the sole operative force to bring down criminals the law considers untouchable. Having gotten inside their minds with her psychological profiles, she can be every bit as fierce and ferocious, evil, as the predators she tracks. She needs to be in order to survive in her world and protect the sheltered Mikael from all the bad, bad men out there, the depths of whose depravity he would never suspect.        

GWTDT (22)Subsequently it’s Mikael who ends up in the traditional woman’s role, at the mercy of the dastardly villain into whose clutches he’s fallen. It’s an awkward position to find himself in, and one emphasized by having the sexually motivated serial killer uncertainly hesitate as he’s about to tear off Mikael’s trousers, fretting in sexual angst about never having done this to another man before. When Lisbeth arrives in the nick of time to save her lover’s virtue, the psycho realizes that he had underestimated her, just as we first did, wrongly believing Mikael had brought him the perfect final victim for his secret panic room. In so ridding the world of this monster, the embodiment of her darkest fears concerning what beasts men are, Lisbeth is striking a retaliative blow for all defenseless females who can’t protect themselves, including her own inner twelve-year-old who could do nothing to prevent her father’s abuse. She might be an avenging archangel and certainly she’s the answer to Mikael’s prayers, his savior, same as he is hers. Mikael’s perfect complement, assistant and right hand man, Lisbeth may seem an odd sort to play His Girl Friday, but by drawing her in, requesting her involvement in this murder mystery, Mikael helps to heal her psychological scars.

Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in Stockholm

Lisbeth has been good for Mikael, and he for her, developing that more sociable side she’d been counseled to earlier, by showing her all men aren’t animals. He’s the investment she’s actually referring to when she tells him it was worth it after the $50,000 loan she took out, no strings attached. He’s reaffirmed her faith in men. It’s touching when she tells her former guardian that she’s finally made a respectable friend he’d approve of, and even more so when Mikael sincerely tells this girl who’s tried so hard to mutilate her features that she looks nice.

This odd pair make perfect partners and an ideal romantic match, so it’s confounding and inexcusable that Mikael should subsequently choose to go off with safe, circumspect Erica after having taken such a thrilling walk on the wild side with Lisbeth. He comes off as just the latest cad in her hard knock life to disappoint and let her down, leaving this normally sensible girl kicking herself for having fleetingly succumbed to her romantic flight of fancy. Yet what seems such a letdown is more than likely intended as lead-in to the promised, forthcoming sequels.

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