Review: 'Dragon' succeeds as edgy thriller

Remake of Swedish film, book has its own style

Published On: Dec 21 2011 12:58:06 PM PST   Updated On: Dec 23 2011 09:44:59 AM PST
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie image

If all of a sudden a whole crop of spiky-haired, pierced Goth type computer hackers come out of the woodwork, don't be surprised -- Lisbeth Salander is the most influential female heroine to be introduced to modern cinema since Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley.

Interview: Screenwriter Steven Zaillian

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the first story in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, which has been already completed on film in Sweden, and features the fierce character at its center.

David Fincher, who has been behind the camera of "Fight Club" amd "Panic Room" and received Academy Award nominations for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," is given the task of introducing Larsson's series, and the dark and stormy Salander, to American audiences. Now that we don't have wizards and we're on the tail end of stories of vampire brides, it's time to let another sequelistic frenzy begin. And so it has.

Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian certainly have their work cut out for them, for even though Lisbeth Salander has intrigue, there's pounds of other story to cut through to get to the nitty gritty.

In "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," there's another important character, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who still believes in the watchdog form of journalism and works at a magazine, Millenninum, that believes in it, too. When the film opens, he's been found libelous for uncovering some seemingly seedy dealings of a wealthy businessman. Blomkvist knows he's been set up, but has no way of proving it.

It's the perfect time for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to step in and offer Blomkvist an investigative job. Vanger promises him a "handsome sum of money" to escape the city and spend time on a secluded island that has been inhabited by the dysfunctional Vanger clan for years. Decades ago, Henrik's niece disappeared and someone in the family knows how and why. There are all kinds of skeletons in the closet in the Vanguard household including Nazism, rape, alcohol abuse and greed. Blomvkist ends up hiring Salander to help him with his research, throwing the two into a bizarre and twisted universe.

Parallel subplots reveal Lisbeth's own horrific dealings, including a particularly graphic rape scene by her sadistic, state-imposed legal guardian Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).

Storywise "Dragon Tattoo" could be a BBC series, a computer hacker joins a journalist to uncover unsolved murders. This especially seems so when Blomkvist goes on a journey to find photos from a random picture taker and ends up in a widow's cozy countryside house going through yellowed honeymoon photos, while Lisbeth collects stacks of historical data from Vanguard Industries searching for murder clues.

But Fincher knows how to keep the story taut, and a soundtrack by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross underscores the edginess that is pervasive throughout.

Finding the actress to play the tattooed girl was no easy task, for sure, but it ended up she was right under Fincher's nose. Rooney Mara played Jesse Eisenberg's jilted girlfriend in "The Social Network." She's barely recognizable as Salander, but inhabits the role with a cool ease. Swedish actress Noomi Rapace originated the film role in the Swedish screen version; she can be seen stateside in "Sherlock Holmes 2." There's something more mysterious about Mara's portrayal when compared to Rapace's take on the role. There's a quiet depth that plays as a throughline throughout. However, the Swedish version does reveal more about Salander's past than the U.S. screenplay, so that could account for some of the vagueness.

Filled with brutality and sexual violence especially against women, Larsson's "Tattoo" is not an easy story and Fincher's bold direction makes it all the more difficult. If there's one bone to pick, it is with a scene where Blomvkist and Salander end up in bed together. In typical Hollywood fashion, we are given a full view of Mara, while we see much less of Craig, adding insult to the injury of female exploitation.

The film, all in all, has all the elements of a well-made movie: good acting, great directing, powerful characters and a story ready made for a sequel or two. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood slays the rest of Larsson's "Dragons" since there are two more films in the works for release through 2015.