The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo August 8, 2015
Lisbeth Salander is the kind of character who might normally be cast aside as the female counterpart to our testosterone-driven hero, appreciated but still under-appreciated all the same. But Salander doesn’t live in the constraints of your average thriller. She exists in the kind of thriller that only rarely dives headfirst into theaters, the kind that snakes along the wet pavement with effective grit while The Prodigy plays in the background and cigarette smoke suffocates the misty air. She’s a heroine who doesn’t look like a heroine but ends up saving the day and stealing the show.
In the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, unseen by me, Salander was portrayed by Noomi Rapace with, as Roger Ebert puts it in his review of the film, “unwavering intensity.” In the American adaptation, released in 2011, she is played by Rooney Mara with ferocious authority, calm and cool in the most dangerous of situations, deadly when she needs to be. Mara disappears so completely into the role that it will be hard, I imagine, for most audiences to succumb to her powers in a different role without referring back to this one.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would already be an excellent murder-mystery if it relied on story alone; its stunningly structured characters (and the cast playing them) work as additional shots of caffeine that give the plot enough staying power to keep our interest for the 158 minute running time (which zig zags along with the agility of a rabid cheetah). It’s unconventional, moodier than your average Chris Nolan foray and more misanthropic than your misogynists, misandrists. But the cynicism is intoxicating, as if David Fincher reconfigured the glamorization of death in murder ballads and threw them onto the screen for us to inhale. Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t tread into contrived darkness. It strolls along cloaked in convincing darkness, so hypnotizing because it knows the brutality life has to offer and doesn’t just stand by like a victim. It wants to fight back, setting fire to the past and coming alive in the treacherous electricity of the present.
Though the film is titled after its central heroine, the lead of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in actuality, is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the newly disgraced co-editor of Millennium magazine. Having just lost a libel suit against tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström, he plans to take a much-needed vacation, gather his thoughts and figure out where his now-controversial life will be headed next. At least, that’s where he thinks he’s going: after hiring Salander (a gifted hacker) to conduct an extensive search on Blomkvist, business giant Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) invites him to his barren island home and proposes the unproposable; if Blomkvist investigates and eventually solves the 40-year-old murder of his grandniece, Harriet, he will exchange unreleased information about Wennerström that could give Blomkvist’s career a much needed needle to the chest. Complications arise, however, when Blomkvist and Salander join forces and dig deeper into the Vanger family’s shocking past; there, they find long buried secrets better kept unearthed than out in the open.
The leads of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are not of Tom Cruise clean-cutishness but of fragmented Max Rockatansky depressiveness, committed to bringing justice to the corrupted nooks and crannies of the world but hardly able to provide closure to their damaged psyches. That’s what makes the film so tremendously sensational. While the story magnetizes with its abundance of second guesses, false leads, and red herrings, the leading characters are compelling enough to work as fragile individuals who could head a meaty character study without all the sin-infused iciness. Throughout the course of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is raped, Blomkvist shot, tortured, stalked; Salander tells horror stories of her past, while Blomkvist continuously puts his life on the line for his career. But consider that Stieg Larsson’s original material doesn’t allow them to become victims of their own tragedies (Salander gets satisfying revenge on her rapist more methodical than Beatrix Kiddo could have ever dreamed, while Blomkvist repeatedly regains composure after having his world shattered over and over again). They are survivors. Craig and Mara are outstanding.
More poised to get under your skin than most films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unforgettable experience, from the eerie crackling of Fincher’s atmosphere to Mara’s staggering transformation. A must. A