A mere two years after an adaptation of the first of the crazy-popular Stieg Larsson novels hit international screens, America gets its own version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
For those who haven’t read the books or seen the trilogy of Swedish movies (the last of which I’m pretty sure I saw in 2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the story of two investigators, each with personal problems, who eventually come together to solve a decades-old mystery. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a well-known journalist who has just been convicted of libel (in the Swedish movies this comes with a jail sentence; here it’s presented more as a lawsuit situation) for a story he did on a well-known businessman. Blomkvist suspects that his conclusions about the nefarious character of the man are correct but his evidence for the story turned out to be bogus. He is now faced with the loss of his life savings, his professional credibility and his job, since he feels the only way to potentially save his newsmagazine, Millennium, is to quit it. This also means leaving the regular company of colleague Erika Berger (Robin Wright), his long-time lover (she’s married, he’s divorced, they tryst occasionally — hey, it’s Europe).
Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a slight, 23-year-old girl who has had a tough life. She has been institutionalized and is still a ward of the state, though her current case worker is a kind man who is helping her to live her own life. She works as an investigator, specializing in computer investigations (i.e. hacking). Though she is brusque and tough — all decked out in piercings, ink and leather — she is a fair person with a strong sense of justice. Unfortunately, her case worker has a stroke and she finds herself answering to a new man, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a sadist and a predator. He uses his state-given abilities to control her money to force her into some very rated-R unwanted sexual contact. After a particularly brutal assault, Lisbeth decides to strike back.
Salander and Blomkvist meet at first only on paper. She does a background check on him for Henrick Vagner (Christopher Plummer), an aging industrialist. Vagner wants Blomkvist to come to his home on an island in northern Sweden and investigate the death of his much-loved niece Harriet (Moa Garpendal), who vanished from the island during a family gathering decades earlier. Henrick is convinced that it was one of his own family members (whose number includes drunkards, meanies and former Nazis) who caused her death. Blomkvist decides to take the job, in part because Vagner promises to give him info — info that will stand up in court this time — on the dirty businessman who just sued Blomkvist for libel. At first, the long-past case seems hopeless, but once he finds a lead to new evidence, he asks to bring on an assistant, and who better than the woman — Salander — who just investigated him?
And, hey, what says “holiday season movie” better than a story filled with murder, Nazis and violent sexual assault?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very R-rated. Perhaps because the Swedish version allowed me to view all the brutality through the haze of subtitles, the story (which was pretty darn dark in that first movie as well as in the book) seems even more graphically violent here. The movie never turns away from an awful thing, whether it is mangled bodies or gruesome acts. “Shocking” isn’t quite the right way to describe it since I knew what was coming. But it makes the horror all the more present — again, perhaps a result of not having to give half your attention to reading the dialogue on the screen. It makes the story much more disturbing but it also makes the disturbing stuff the highlight instead of the context.
And that first movie, despite its own graphic scenes, had a beach-read kind of entertaining quality. The old-fashioned mystery at its heart made it compelling despite its flaws. (The crime takes place on an island, making it sort of a locked room mystery. The investigating is very much an old-school affair — photographs, ancient records, the memories of potentially unreliable family members.) It’s hard to pinpoint whether the fact that I’m so familiar with the story is why I didn’t find that here or some other flaw of this particular movie. But the darkness, rather than the puzzle, seems more in the forefront in this film.
Now let me state here that I am completely aware of the fact that the most annoying guy at the cocktail party is the one who goes on and on about how the British version of The Office is so vastly superior to the American one. Sure, both shows grew from the same seed but each has become its own individual work of art. I want to be able to judge this The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo apart from the previous version, without always falling back on comparison. But it’s difficult. I just saw the Swedish version — just saw the sequels in the last probably 18 or so months. And I’m guessing that a lot of the people who would tend to seek this movie out will have seen that version as well. These were hugely popular books, and the movies got massive international play. While this version tinkers with some of the facts, it is the same story as that previous version.
Which isn’t to say there are no differences. This being an American, English-language movie, we have accents instead of people speaking Swedish. And, instead of the doughy, wrinkly portrayal of Blomkvist from the Swedish movies, we have the svelte Craig. He de-Blomkvists the Blomkvist character. The Swedish portrayal was a bit closer to the image I built from the book — a smart but ordinary-ish middle-aged man who got all the chicks mostly because he was a thinly veiled take on Larrson and who isn’t going to make himself irresistible when writing a book where he is essentially the star? Here, women want him because he looks like Daniel Craig.
Mara is a little better at making Lisbeth a character who, though essentially the same as Noomi Rapace’s character, offers a slightly different take on the same material. Rapace’s Salander is harder, colder, tougher. Mara — and some tweaks to the story — make this Lisbeth’s vulnerability more apparent.
And there I go, unable to think about this movie except in terms of comparison.
So, I give: this The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did not quite grab me as that earlier version did. It is slicker, sleeker and edgier but it loses some of the puzzle-ness that made that movie so engrossing. B-
Rated R — no kidding — for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language. Directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by Stephen Zaillian, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is two hours and 40 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.