This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was probably not born with an anti-social personality, but it is a stance she cultivates in order to survive. Her piercings, tattooes, Mohawk, and fierce stride are used expressly to intimidate, to announce to any room she enters, “I may be a scrawny young woman, but do not mess with me.” She has the benefit of being provided with an allowance by Sweden’s draconian social services (she was declared “mentally incompetent” at the age of 12), but as we will see, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, her financial aid is more of a curse than a blessing. It has put her in a state of subservience.
Lisbeth uses her formidable hacking skills to get work as a researcher for firms looking to dig up dirt on people. She is quietly voracious at the computer, like an unthinking instinctive predator, chain-smoking, downing cans of Coke, wolfing down McDonald’s French fries. She sleeps with women, understandable considering the brutality she has received at the hands of men. As played by Rooney Mara, in David Fincher’s film adaptation of Steig Larsson’s runaway hit novel (the first of the trilogy), Lisbeth Salamander is a riveting presence, smileless, rude, blunt, and yet twitching with vulnerability. The odd sparks of humor on her face are like a flickering and dying Morse Code message of the woman she could have been if life had been kinder to her. The part requires Mara to be a black-clad Ninja of revenge, the smartest person in any room, a wounded child, a frightened trapped animal, and a sexual dynamo. It’s a fanboy’s fantasy, but Mara pulls it off.
Unfortunately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, written by Steven Zaillian, takes too long to get to the guts of the story. It opens with a stunner of a music video to the accompaniment of Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, with frenetic black and silver images of black ink pouring onto a keyboard, snapping black cords, and dragons bursting into flames. It is an onslaught of sound and imagery, artful, and intimidating. The story begins with the swift downfall of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), when the plot kicks into creaky motion, never to let up until the end, but that opener haunts the first hour of the film, reminding us of where Dragon Tattoo wants to go, if it didn’t have to deal with all the boring stuff in the beginning.
To say The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is complex is an understatement and the story requires much exposition to keep the plot comprehensible to the audience (assuming they haven’t read the original novel). There are times when Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feels like a souped-up Criminal Minds episode, complete with serial killers, graphic brutality against women, and crazed psychopaths sporting elaborate torture chambers in their basement, not to mention Nazi leanings. Before we even get to the chilly severe presence of Lisbeth Salander, we have to learn about the trials and tribulations of Blomkvist, sued for libel, and iruined financially. The high-end magazine he works for, Millennium, run by his sometime-lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright), has also been ruined in defending Blomkvist and may have to close up shop. Blomkvist receives a call from a Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), member of a wealthy Swedish family who made their fortune in railroads. Vanger ostensibly wants Blomkvist to write his biography, but actually has hired him to look into an unsolved family mystery. Blomkvist, desperate for work, accepts the offer to be a researcher and is given a cottage on the isolated Vanger family island. The only sociable one is Martin, played with oozing affability by Stellan Skarsgård.
The first hour is top-loaded and bogged down with intersecting plot-lines, essentially a prologue, complete with a groaning family tree. Daniel Craig, as Blomkvist, does not come off particularly well. He’s fine, he does what the script calls on him to do, squinting at old photographs and staring intently at his evidence, but compared to the psychological onslaught of Rooney Mara every time she enters the story, he seems a cipher. Once the gloves come off in the final third, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo jumpstarts into the thriller it wanted to be all along.
Because David Fincher is at the helm, a master at creating ominous moods of existential doom (see Seven and Zodiac, to name a few), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looks incredible. All color is bled out of the palette. The landscape is grey and white, the snow falling in horizontal lines across the stark landscape, the shadows are thick, and the sound of howling wind seeps into the bleak color scheme. Martin Vanger’s house on the hill is filled with seemingly warm lamplight, but the furnishings are spare and modern, with little to no personal stamp on the decor. Real life may be lived in this world, human and pulsing, but is nowhere in evidence in Fincher’s universe. When Lisbeth puts on a blonde wig, red lipstick, and a pink suit, it is as startling as Dorothy leaving her black-and-white house to enter the Technicolor Oz.
Lisbeth Salande’s laptop is stolen in the subway station and she races after the thief, giving him a satisfying beat-down on the escalator. Her perverted Daddy-figure of a social worker (played by Yorick van Wageningen) makes Lisbeth pay for extra cash in first blow-jobs and then a rape, filmed in excruciating detail. Even more haunting is the image of her squatting in the bathtub following the rape, blood running down her legs and down the drain. She is an avenging angel in retaliation. It may be emotionally satisfying to see her turn the tables on her social worker, but it leaves her pretty much where she started. There is no victory for her in it, at least not a lasting one.
Lisbeth and Blomkvist join forces, and their dynamic is fun to watch, something one aches for in the midst of this movie filled with despicable people. At one point, Lisbeth starts searching on Blomkvist’s laptop for something, and Blomkvist warns, “My notes are encrypted,” and she shoots him a quick look that clearly says, “As if I couldn’t hack through your lame-ass ‘encryption’, pal.”
The plot is clearly the thing here, and everyone has a lot of explaining to do. Up until almost the final moment, various characters are given long monologues explaining themselves, similar to the final confessions in an Agatha Christie novel, or, again, in the last 10 minutes of any Criminal Minds episode, when the serial killer explains to the FBI how he got away with it for so long.
Christopher Plummer is terrific in his role as Henrik Vanger, with an emotional outburst almost worth the price of admission. Robin Wright is always a welcome presence.Joely Richardson is quietly heartbreaking as Anita Vanger, a woman who fled her own family as though it was a prison camp. Daniel Craig, superb in the past, is merely serviceable here.
This is Rooney Mara’s show from beginning to end.