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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s take on the immensely popular Swedish mystery novel is a movie that contains multitudes. It’s nearly three-hour run time allows it to do a lot of different things, and do most of them very well. Ultimately the only thing keeping it from being a great movie is the limitations of the source material itself. No blame for this should attach to Fincher or anyone else involved in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is the best adaptation of a novel I didn’t like that I could possibly expect.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a left-wing journalist embarrassed and financially ruined after being successfully sued for libel by a wealthy industrialist. Blomkvist’s dogged investigation draws the attention of another magnate, Henrik Vanger (the great Christopher Plummer) who hires him to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. When Blomkvist asks for an assistant, he’s introduced to the researcher who checked into him for Vanger, the titular tattooed lady, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).

I’m already getting ahead of myself, because that meeting between Blomkvist and Salander doesn’t happen until well into the movie. Instead we follow them separately, as Blomkvist begins his seemingly hopeless investigation and Salander goes through some terrible mistreatment at the hands of the state.

Any adaptation would necessarily hinge on the actress playing Lisbeth. For a while I didn’t quite buy Mara in the role, she seemed too vulnerable. I suppose that is a part of the character, but it honestly seemed like she might start quivering any second. That all changed in the revenge scene, when Mara tapped into the dark side of her character, and played it to the hilt without being at all cartoonish or unbelievable. No, it was a scary, barely-controlled performance. It was brilliant. And even that earlier vulnerability comes back around to contribute to an emotionally resonant final scene.

The film is a little hampered by adhering to the book’s plot line, which to me felt full of inconsistencies, gaps in logic, and implausible occurrences. Fincher handles the plot as well as he can, ramping up the tension and increasing realism wherever he can. In a lot of ways “Tattoo” reminded me of Fincher’s last film, The Social Network. In both the director faced the unenviable task of wringing thrills out of some decidedly unexciting acts. In The Social Network it was computer programming, here it is computer hacking and research. (Granted, here he does have a lot of violence to build around.) It’s amazing what he can do with some quick camerawork and some pounding tones on the soundtrack.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a compelling film, even though the central mystery is not particularly well developed and the reveal should come as no surprise. It’s good enough to do two things: a. forgive the obscene amount of product placement within the film, and b. maybe even take another crack at getting through Stieg Larsson’s other two novels.

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