Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movie – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

As supporters of director David Fincher quite correctly point out, this film is not a remake of the original 2009 Swedish version.  It is an English language adaptation of the original book.  Those supporters sometimes go on to say that this means the Swedish film is not relevant when reviewing Fincher’s version.  I’m afraid I don’t agree there.  It was impossible for me to see this film and not compare it to the original.  This review will include some of those comparisons.  By the way, if you want to read my review of the book and the original film, you can find those here.

Of all the 2011 nominees, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received the most Oscar nominations (five) without receiving a Best Picture nomination.  Those five were for Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.  I’m not sure if the film will end up winning any of the five (the technical categories are often hard to predict.)

When this film was released the studio expected to have large numbers of women buying tickets to see it.  This was due to the fact that women far and away drove the sales of the book that the film is based on.  The ticket sales to women ended up being smaller than expected, however.  I’m not really surprised.  It’s one thing to read a description of a brutal rape in a book – something that can be set aside for a while, if needed – and it’s a whole other thing to sit with a crowd in a theater and watch a minutes long brutal rape scene.  I believe this kept some people from buying tickets. 

In an interesting coincidence, the week this film debuted it was the third most popular movie and the two movies ahead of it, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, featured the two stars of the original Dragon Tattoo film (Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace). 

For those who are not familiar with the story, it takes place in Sweden and has two main characters.  They are Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a crusading writer and editor at the fictional Millennium magazine, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a computer hacker with a seriously messed up past.  She is the “girl” in the title.

The premise of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that Blomkvist is hired by a rich, elderly man (Christopher Plummer) who wants him to look into the 40 year old disappearance of the man’s niece.  Blomkvist is skeptical that he will be able to turn up anything new, but since he has had to take a leave of absence from his magazine, he has nothing better to occupy his time.

Before hiring him the man had Blomkvist’s background researched.  The firm he hired used Salander as their primary researcher.  Hacking is illegal in Sweden, but her results are so thorough that her company pretends not to know how she achieves them.  They also ignore her outlandish (to them) appearance, with the many piercings, tattoos, etc.

Usually Salander moves on after completing an assignment, but something about Blomkvist’s situation keeps her intrigued.  Despite the fact that she is anti-social to the extreme, she cannot help herself and she ends up getting involved in Blomkvist’s investigation.

Both Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara do good jobs in their roles.  Even though Craig lost some muscle tone to try to look more normal, like George Clooney in The Descendants he doesn’t quite come across as the middle aged schlub he is portraying.  Mara on the other hand did a huge transition to play this role and was understandably given an Oscar nomination.  Even though it could have easily been done via prop jewelry, director Fincher insisted Mara undergo multiple painful procedures to get all the piercings the character had, including eyebrow, nose, lip, and nipples.  At least he didn’t insist she get real tattoos, too.

This English language version made some puzzling choices in regards to how people spoke.  It kept the film set in Sweden.  Despite the setting, most of the “Swedish” people in the film speak with a mix of vaguely European accents.  Craig keeps his British accent.  American Rooney Mara speaks with what sounds like either a Germanic or Slavic accent.  The most famous real Swede in the film, actor Stellan Skarsgard, speaks with the same almost unaccented voice he uses in all the other American films he is in.  These accents were obviously important to Fincher, even though they are actually irrelevant when you’ve got every Swedish person speaking in English and not Swedish anyway.  At least Fincher didn’t have them all sounding like the Swedish chef from the Muppet Show.

This movie catches your attention right at the beginning.  The opening credits are a nightmare version of a James Bond opening, accompanied by an interesting cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (“We come from the land of the ice and snow…”)

The central mystery is well presented and many scenes work very well in regards to tension.  Just as in the book, this central story is wrapped up long before the movie ends, though.  Had author Stieg Larsson lived his manuscripts would have undoubtedly undergone some editing in order to tighten up their narratives.  The original movie actually fixed a number of these story problems.  In that version, the time from the complete resolution of the central mystery, to the time the credits start to roll is only 6 minutes.  In the 2011 version it was close to a half hour.  Both films cover pretty much the same plot points, but the original does it in a much more concise and satisfying way.

This doesn’t mean that the 2011 version is a note by note presentation of the book.  It still changed some things, most notably the answer to the central mystery.  My guess is that Fincher did this in order to give the millions of people who had already read the book and/or seen the original movie a small twist that they would not be expecting.  It did confuse me for about 15-20 seconds before I caught on with what was happening.  Unfortunately, it also made the fact that the answer to the mystery had gone undiscovered for 40 years a little less believable.

The use of Enya’s song Orinoco Flow during a particularly harrowing scene may be the most incongruous matchup of song to movie scene since the use of the Steelers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle with You in the film Reservoir Dogs (1992).  The situations in both films are similar enough that it makes me wonder if the filmmakers had the Reservoir Dogs scene in mind when picking the Enya song for their movie.  Whatever may have led to it, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I don’t usually do this, but I am going to have spoilers in the next section.  I will bracket it with spoiler warnings, so if you are not familiar with what happens in the story you can skip to the text below this section.  If you wish to comment on something I wrote within the Spoiler section, please include a spoiler warning in your comment, too.


My two biggest negatives with this version involve the casting of one role and the resolution to Salander’s story arc.

This film suffers from a bad casting choice by having by far the most recognizable face among the suspects being the bad guy.  Perhaps Fincher figured that so many people knew the story anyway, he decided it was better to hire the best actor he could for this pivotal role.  Skarsgard does do a very good job, too.  I just feel it spoils the buildup of the bad guy’s reveal when there’s one really obvious choice.  Perhaps it just seemed more obvious to me because I already knew who the bad guy was going to be.

The thing that disappointed me the most was where they left the Salander character at the end of the film.  In Fincher’s defense, he kept Salander’s ending almost identical to the book’s.  That is the problem, though.

Both book and movie do an excellent job of building up the Salander character, showing she is independent, strong, and more than capable of taking care of herself.  They then undo this at the end by using the same old cliché so many other movies use.  It’s the one where once a woman has sex with the hero she goes all gooey inside and starts imagining herself as an adjunct to the man, instead of her own independent person.  The man then breaks her heart by not wanting a relationship. 

This is what happens to Salander in both book and 2011 movie.  In this case, Blomkvist continues his many years long relationship with his female editor, yet somehow Salander thought he would give that up for her and is very hurt by it.  It completely undermines the character.  The original movie corrected this problem by simply not having any of those scenes.  Yes, they still have Salander and Blomkvist having sex, but both understood it was not leading to anything long term.  The original movie completely removed that weaker, hurt version of Salander and left her strong and triumphant from having made off with all of the bad guy’s money.  As you can tell, I much prefer the original movie’s treatment of the Salander character in this regard.


Despite the few negatives I had with the film, overall it is still a very watchable thriller.  If you like your movies sticking quite close to the original source material, then you should definitely see this film.  For people unfamiliar with the story, there is a sequence that includes a brutal rape.  It is not easy to watch.  If you feel that would be too much for you then you should probably skip this film (and the original one, too).  For everyone else, I recommend you give this movie a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Awesome review, I completely agree about the casting for the bad guy being kinda a giveaway. I loved how they used Enya's song it made for such a chilling scene.

  2. @Sati. - Thanks for the comment. Thanks also for becoming a Follower. I did bookmark your site after leaving a few comments several days back, but I haven't had a chance to get back to it. I still intend to do so. I like to go through quite a few posts at a site before finally becoming a Follower myself. I had something quite unexpected happen late last week. I managed to still get some posts up only because I had already written them ahead of time. I haven't been online other than that. I've run through those reviews, so now I need to write some more before I can post again.