Review by C.J. Bunce
As major mainstream movies are concerned, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. Some good, mostly bad. At the end of the movie we are left with a new super heroine of sorts. As viewers, we uncomfortably accompanied her on an ugly and brutal path. But at the end, we are left wanting to see what happens to her next. The plot of the movie itself is complex but not complicated, yet the picture gets spun out of control into just another piece of shock cinema, and despite some good storytelling in building up the mystery, the climax is absurd, leaving us with a lackluster payoff. There’s too much of everything in this picture, and not enough of what it does best.
I’m not sure this was meant to be a likeable movie, as it was too disturbing to be “likeable”. Some parts were entertaining. Some parts were done very well. Other parts weren’t. Look for spoilers ahead about what you will see in this movie, but I’ll give none of the actual story and mystery away.
At one level, it’s hard not to get sucked into an investigative reporter mystery. And the unusual private eye-type job of the female lead in the movie was the coolest feature. But ultimately we don’t really get to know much about her, and what makes her tick, except that she’s repeatedly been a victim of the system. The director didn’t get into the daily job she had at the beginning of the film as much as I would have liked and the story meandered into other areas I cared less about instead.
Having watched the first third of the original Swedish version based on the late Stieg Larsson’s novel, I stopped to wait and watch this U.S. theatrical release first. The original version is up there with the most graphic, disturbingly real-life violent movies ever made. This new version is not substantially different, and beyond the first third of the movie the violence only builds. Think of the most disturbing parts of Deliverance, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Fargo, and Silence of the Lambs. Like all these films, I would expect this one to do well around award season. Movies that shock the conscience of the mainstream tend to succeed that way. If you’re sensitive at all to true-life violence, skip this picture. If you go, you’ll see graphic rape and torture scenes, numerous crime scene photos and dialogue about torture, rape, and murder. And you’ll see several full-on sex scenes, none of which substantially contribute to the plot. As we mentioned here in our first look at the movie trailer, you may recall that the original novel’s name translated from Swedish is Men Who Hate Women. Ultimately, in both the main story, the back story and the subplots, that is all this movie is about, backed up with a corresponding vengeance story.
Beyond the shock factor of the violence, there is more to discuss, both good and bad.
Rooney Mara (Social Network, remake of Nightmare on Elm Street) playing the title role’s Lisbeth Salander as a down in the dumps, arguably insane yet intelligent, Goth street urchin is pretty much perfect for this role, and there was obviously a lot for this actress to go through, both as a character and in real life as an actor. For what I saw of the original film, Noomi Rapace in the same role was equally good, however. In fact all the scenes tracked the original as far as I watched the original version and the actors were all equally good. For this American version, an Oscar nomination for Mara is certain. Her best scene is in the final 20 minutes, a denouement that sets us up nicely for a sequel. We can hope the continuing adventures of Salander in the next movie are better than in this one.
Another contender for an Oscar should be Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI, Sound of Music, Wolf, Twelve Monkeys, Dragnet, Dreamscape, Somewhere in Time), who took a fairly minor role and made us care about him (maybe more than anyone else) from the beginning of the film to the end. I was a little concerned about his character being a bit laughable, as in the movie previews he reminded me of Hume Cronyn’s dying character in Brewster’s Millions, yet Plummer’s skill as an actor brought some overall necessary credibility to the picture. And he gets to utter the classic phrase “The enemy of my friend is my enemy.”
Unfortunately, Daniel Craig (Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall) didn’t get a lot to work with in the screenplay as the lead male but secondary character, a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist. His character makes stupid choices and he is hard to like, other than saving a stray cat (and yes, as with several other predictable components of the movie, whenever there is an animal in a film like this, you can be sure it doesn’t make it to the last scene). Like literally every named character in the film, Craig’s character’s life is a mess. He is flawed and weak, yet his character never gets beyond that state, where in another story it would be cause for some good character growth. His partner/love interest is played by Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, Unbreakable, State of Play), who is the only lead character to sport a Swedish accent. I wouldn’t blame Wright for this–it was an odd directorial choice, and similar oddities and inconsistencies are peppered throughout the film, with some signs and papers in English and others in Swedish. Usually a director will pick a path and stick with it. I’ve always loved the way this was done in The Hunt for Red October, where dialogue begins in Russian, then subtly switches entirely to English.
And speaking of The Hunt for Red October, that movie’s co-star Stellan Skarsgard (Thor, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Avengers) gets a lot of screen time here as one of Plummer’s creepy family members. Skarsgard is a good actor, and it’s no surprise seeing him cast in this film. The rest of the cast performs well, too, and there is both a current cast of characters and a younger set shown in flashback. In fact at the beginning of the film you can’t help be hopeful for a Clue-like whodunnit. We get a mystery, but it has too many components, with riddles answered too conveniently, to make this a great picture.
The payoff in the film should not be surprising considering every crazy thing leading up to it. Yet we get there and everything is too nicely tied up, too convenient, too quickly the riddle is solved and it’s just not as satisfying as it should be.
The opening credits may be the worst opening I have ever had to sit through for a mainstream movie. They consist of bodies plunging in and out of black oil, oil that makes you think the key to the riddle will somehow involve oil, and when you see an overturned tanker halfway through the film it makes you over-focus on it. Were this a James Bond movie of pure fantasy, this elaborate opener might be appropriate, because it obviously took great skill to create, but for this kind of real-life subject matter it was just long, annoying and irrelevant.
The soundtrack and overall sound effects were too loud and obnoxious throughout–so loud that it often drowned out the dialogue of the actors and contrasted with, instead of amplified, the power of each scene. Maybe this was the fault of the sound editors. It was as if the final editors realized that telling us the story in long explanatory sentences quietly was too boring, so some wild, jumpy background music would somehow make us think this was exciting. It didn’t work. The setting of the movie is ugly. A travelogue for Sweden, this is not. As setting is concerned there is no relief, no light at the end of the tunnel. Humorously one character gets to have a good line mentioning an IKEA table.
You’ll ask yourself questions after the film. The biggest is: Do you need to fully show viewers the full extent of real-life violence to feel complete sympathy for victims of violence? I think most of the shock was unnecessary to tell this story. Others may think you need this blatant depiction of violence to get the audience inflamed enough to cheer for the unlikely heroine. I think we’d cheer for her either way. How far could you go if you had to fight back? How much would you help someone like the main character in real life? What the heck does the dragon tattoo have to do with anything? Yes, the girl has tattoos, but they are irrelevant to the story. Ultimately it’s just a catchy title to lure us into the theater.
Is this just an updated version of the La Femme Nikita story? I was reminded of it several times and it was fun seeing what the Internet can now do to contribute to the investigative process in a mystery movie. I have to say I found Bridget Fonda’s version of Nikita, Point of No Return, although a lot thinner film, more entertaining than this movie. And for a real-life mystery, the often overlooked Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., and Mark Ruffalo, is a far better and scarier, whodunnit and suspense thriller.
Ultimately what is in store for the viewer is a mixed bag of opposites. The negatives are very negative, and the positives are pretty positive. Unfortunately the negatives left me disappointed with this film. I can’t over-stress the violent content, and if you don’t believe me check out this great summary on the Internet Movie Database. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Rated R, but years ago would have easily been an NC-17. 3 of 5 stars.