The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
4 out of 4 stars
Prior to its release, Warner Bros. marketed ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ as the ‘feel-bad movie of Christmas’, and it’s easy to see why. Dark, disturbing, yet utterly engrossing and thrilling, this American adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel is not only more emotionally involving than its Swedish predecessor, but is possibly the best psychological thriller period since ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Featuring a truly unforgettable cast of characters, a consistently ominous atmosphere of dread, chilling cinematography, a carefully constructed jigsaw plot, and a bitter, angry social message lying underneath it all, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is the rare film that simply needs to be experienced to be believed. Without a doubt, director David Fincher has again defied the odds and created a powerful, haunting masterpiece.
Set in Sweden, the film’s protagonist is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), journalist and chief editor of the anti-capitalist magazine Millennium. When the film starts however Blomkvist is being sued for libel by businessman Hans Wennerstrom, ultimately costing him his life savings and his magazine’s reputation. His career in tatters, he decides to temporarily retire from the magazine and take on a low-key writing assignment to occupy his thoughts. Almost immediately, an offer arrives from Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the aging head of one of the largest energy companies in Sweden. Officially, Blomkvist’s job is to write a biography of the family’s extensive history. However, Henrik reveals that Blomkvist’s real purpose is to investigate the disappearance of his nephew Harriet, who disappeared from the family’s residence on Hedeby Island over 40 years ago. Despite a length investigation, no evidence was found and the case was closed. All these years later however, Henrik is convinced that Harriet was murdered, and will stop at nothing to find the truth before his death.
After reluctantly accepting the offer, Blomkvist moves to Hedeby Island, an icy, desolate locale in the far north of Sweden where the remaining Vanger family members are located. His contract dictates that he has a total of three months to write the book, but that he must work on the island under Henrik’s supervision until he finishes. Shortly after moving, Blomkvist contacts a security firm and hires a research assistant to help him, the young Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Technically brilliant yet antisocial and guarded, it soon becomes clear that Lisbeth is hiding secrets of her own.
Together, the pair searches through records and interview members of the family, including the current head of the Vanger Corporation, Martin (Stellan Skarsgard). Eventually, they begin to uncover disturbing new evidence relating to Harriet, with the case starting to finally appear as if it can be solved. However, the pair has secret but dangerous enemies who will stop at nothing to make sure the truth remains hidden. Ultimately, Blomkvist and Salander must decide how far they will go as they uncover a terrifying web of secrets and deception.
The film’s title refers to Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth, whose entire body is covered with tattoos and piercings. In many ways the real heart and soul of the film, her performance is almost impossible to describe in words: if an alien landed on earth and impersonated a human being, it would seem more confident and at ease with the human race than Lisbeth Salander. Silent and cold on the outside, yet burning with a fiery internal rage, Lisbeth is an outsider in every sense of the word, and is distrustful of society and its institutions. Combined with her intellect, this also makes her a genius computer hacker, as she has no qualms about prying into the most private information of people’s lives. Without a doubt, newcomer Rooney Mara manages to make Lisbeth captivatingly odd yet intensely empathetic, with the viewer fully understanding her loneliness and inner torment by the picture’s end. Undoubtedly, Mara’s performance will earn her an Oscar nomination, and should catapult her to Hollywood’s A-list.
Although not playing as fascinating a character as Mara, Daniel Craig nevertheless excels in the lead role as Mikael Blomkvist. Slightly clumsy and unsure in the face of danger, yet confident with himself and possessing an inner peace that Salander envies, Craig manages to breathe life and depth into his portrayal of the classic everyman represented by Blomkvist. In many ways his character is almost the polar opposite of Salander, making their chemistry irresistibly unpredictable to watch. Even if it is too reserved to receive the same awards attention as Mara, Craig’s performance nevertheless ranks as among the actor’s best to date, carrying as much charm as his Bond persona with far more emotional depth to boot.
‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ also benefits from a truly disquieting atmosphere that builds to a frantic peak at the film’s climax. Every shot of the camera is drenched in a dark, murky sheen which radiates menace and danger; the barren and snow-covered landscapes of Sweden only add further to the effect. One could imagine that if hell was covered with ice instead of fire, it would look identical to the freezing wastelands of Hedeby Island depicted in the film. David Fincher’s camera work also plays a large part in establishing suspense: all kinds of unusual camera angles and shots are employed, from long unbroken takes that last for minutes on end, to eerie roaming point of view shots, to sudden quick cuts during moments of danger that are guaranteed to raise the hairs on the viewer’s neck. Last but not least, the moody electronic score by Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor is almost as large an achievement as the film itself, alternating between low, almost indistinguishable humming noises to booming, terrifying sounds of crashing metal, all set to a ghostly melody that brims with sadness and despair.
The story itself is also simply one of the most ingeniously plotted mysteries in recent memory. With a structure based on classic English detective novels, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ immediately engages its audience’s interest by opening with a cliffhanger, forcing the audience to ask questions upon entering the theatre. From there, the two main characters are introduced in a manner that truly feels sincere, whilst never slowing down the story or providing unnecessary details to the audience. Once the main story begins, the red herrings and twists unfold with such skill that viewers will be continually captivated until the climax, which is almost as intellectually challenging as it is viscerally horrifying. Undoubtedly, Stieg Larsson’s literary skills clearly extend beyond those of his American contemporaries.
Additionally, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ also has a strong anti-sexist message at its heart. Much like Clarice Starling before her, Lisbeth Salander is a symbol of female strength in the face of repression and subjugation: she is continually victimized by the men in her life, with almost all of her will to survive borne from anger at her ill treatment until she meets Blomkvist. Indeed, the audience truly understands her plight once they realise what her tattoos represent over the course of the movie.
For those who enjoy their thrillers lurid and dark, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is truly one of the year’s cinematic highlights. Like Fincher’s previous film ‘The Social Network’, it is ultimately a cautionary tale of how modern Western society’s values are corrupt to the core, tainting the masses and leading them on the path to innate moral decay. It is also a tale of the few outsiders who dare to defy the system and follow the path of justice, at great cost to their safety and status within a hostile world that rejects any dissent. Even despite its grim subject manner, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is among the finest cinematic entertainment available in theatres.
‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is currently playing in Hong Kong theatres.