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Movie review: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is too frigid

David Fincher's 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' loses what made the books and Swedish films so successful — Lisbeth Salander's humanity.

December 20, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Rooney Mara stars in the U.S. film version of the hit novel.
Rooney Mara stars in the U.S. film version of the hit novel. (Merrick Morton / Columbia…)

It's not like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" was ever going to be "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." Not even close.

As readers of the Stieg Larsson novel and viewers of the recent Swedish film version know all too well, what's on offer is a bleak and savage story of crime and punishment that features generous portions of sadistic rape, twisted torture and murders that can charitably be called grotesque.

Still, adding David Fincher — the director of "Seven," "Zodiac" and "Fight Club" — to the mix has proved counterproductive.

Fincher is without doubt a gifted, uncompromising filmmaker with enviable skill and exceptional collaborators, here including screenwriter Steven Zaillian and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. And as the director says of his films in his press bio, "He hopes that people like them, but if they don't, it's not for lack of effort."

Though Fincher's gift for disturbing, twist-the-knife cinema made him the obvious Hollywood choice, using him here feels, in a coals-to-Newcastle way, like shipping truckloads of ice to the far reaches of the polar regions. More than that, it betrays a misunderstanding of what's at the heart of the phenomenal international success of the Millennium trilogy books, which clock in at 65 million copies and counting.

That would be the character of Lisbeth Salander, one of the most unlikely, idiosyncratic and compelling crime fighters to hit the scene since Sherlock Holmes. One reason Salander is catnip on the page is that she is anything but in real life. Antisocial when she's not downright furious, a sullen 24-year-old computer hacker with more piercings than friends, she is fierce, furtive and feral. You never want to get in her way.

Though less well-crafted than the Fincher version, Niel Arden Oplev's "Dragon Tattoo" did have the crucial advantage of actress Noomi Rapace. Her savage Salander was as skittish and tattooed as she should be, but there was always a sense of an actual person inside those fierce defenses that enabled audiences to connect on screen in the way readers do on the page.

Playing Salander this time around is Rooney Mara, an intense young actress who had a fine scene with Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg at the opening of Fincher's excellent "The Social Network." She committed herself totally to the "Dragon Tattoo" role and clearly did everything her director asked of her, but this film's cold, almost robotic conception of Salander as a twitchy, anorexic waif feels more like a stunt than a complete character, and so the best part of the reason we care enough to endure all that mayhem has gone away.

Before Salander appears on the scene, "Dragon Tattoo" introduces its nominal protagonist, Millennium magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played with relentless surliness by an effective Daniel Craig. A crusader for truth against the bloated capitalists of the world (and likely Larsson's version of himself), Blomkvist is not having the best of days.

The journalist has found himself on the losing end of a libel verdict. Facing imprisonment and wanting to take a break from his magazine, Blomkvist is receptive when he gets a phone call from an attorney saying that one of Sweden's most powerful men wants to see him.

That would be Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired industrialist who lives on the family-owned Hedeby Island a few hours north of Stockholm and has, in his own words, "spent half of my life investigating the events of a single day."

Those events, which have something of the flavor of a classic locked-room mystery, involve the disappearance of Vanger's favorite niece, Harriet. On the day in question, when a bridge accident made leaving the island impossible, 16-year-old Harriet simply vanished. Vanger not only suspects she was murdered, he thinks it was done by a member of his family, and he wants Blomkvist to put his investigative reporting skills to work finding the truth.

So the journalist moves into a frigid cabin on the island, abandoning his it-works-for-us relationship with his married publisher (Robin Wright) and starts making charts and tacking photos onto the wall like he was one of the hard-core Baltimore cops on "The Wire."

Circumstances soon make Blomkvist aware of Salander and her particular skill set, and he convinces her to work with him. She is having deep troubles of her own, including a vicious sexual predator who thinks she is an easy mark (ha!). The Salander-Blomkvist collaboration is good for both them and the film.

Screenwriter Zaillian has adroitly pared down the 500-plus-page book (the chatter about a change to the ending is a tempest in a teapot) and what's on screen also benefits from the work of "Social Network" collaborators including production designer Donald Graham Burt, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall and composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. But unlike that film, which profited from Eisenberg's humanity in a not particularly human role, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is too frigid around the heart to be really effective.

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