Friday, January 27, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

No book series may be more prominent right now than Stieg Larsson's Milennium Series. The books have sold over 65 million copies worldwide (the series was also the first to break the million dollar-mark electronically via the Amazon Kindle), have been adopted into a critically acclaimed Swedish film trilogy by director Niels Arden Oplev, and most recently, the first book of the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was "remade" into an American adaptation by David Fincher, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. That is what I am here to talk about.

Though I have never read the book series, I have now seen both the Swedish and American versions of Dragon Tattoo. Upon the viewing, the viewer may think that Dragon Tattoo may be one of the most cynical stories ever told. It's a tale where slander, blackmail, antisemitism, torture and rape lurk at every corner. In fact, what you see at times may even shock you. 

The story relates heavily to the life of Stieg Larsson, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2004, before his best-selling books were published. In his story, his protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), is a disgraced journalist, having been given a false lead a story, which he published, and was subsequently sued for. His reputation and credibility lost, he has no choice but to step down and hand the reigns of his Swedish political magazine, Millennium, to his second-in-command, Erika Berger (Robin Wright Pe --, I mean, Robin Wright.) 

Larsson, meanwhile, was involved in political activism his entire life. At age 40, he became the editor of Expo, a quarterly magazine devoted towards exposing racist and antisimetic organizations in Sweden. As editor of such a publication, he received many death threats. To think that Blomkvist isn't a direct depiction of himself would be extremely naive.

Millennium brainchild Stieg Larsson
In Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist wishes to lay low for a while while the dust settles and the negative media attention disappears, and is given the perfect opportunity to do so when Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired CEO of the internationally renowned Vanger corporation invites him to visit his home and makes him an offer.

On second thought, to say "home" would be a little bit of an injustice towards Henrik. Because, in this case, home represents an island, filled with several small mansions which each of the
 Vangers dwell in. Henrik presents Blomkvist with his offer: Aware of his credentials in investigative journalism, he wishes him to investigate the death of his niece, Harriet, who vanished without a trace 40 years ago, and was later presumed dead. Henrik wants to know who in his family killed her. A large task, especially, which Blomkvist notes, the police themselves couldn't solve. But he accepts nonetheless.

Just before this, we are introduced to Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, heavily pierced, mohawk donning, gothic young woman, who, thanks to the immense beauty of Rooney Mara, we find ourselves unable to keep our eyes off. An absolute whiz with computers,
 Salander is hired by Henrik's lawyers to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist before they hire him.

Along the way, we receive a glimpse of what
 Salander's life is like. Parentless, and outcasted by society because of her appearance, she has spent her life weaving in and out of legal trouble. Since she has no parents, and given her past troubles, her every move is put in the hands of a lawyer, Nils Bjurman, who controls her money and files monthly reports based on her behavior. Bjurman, portrayed by Dutch actor Yorick Van Wageningen, given his character's delicate and unfathomable circumstances, does a terrific job.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander
Bjurman uses the situation to sexually abuse Salander. The scenes are graphic, unforgiving, and and at times, may be hard to watch. That Rooney Mara puts herself out there so often in this film is a display of great courage, and a devoteion to her craft; her accolades and honors (Oscar nomination) are well-deserved. You may find yourself wondering what kind of sicko Larsson must have been to have imagined such a scene. However, according to the author's close friend,  the scene was a result of a rape that Larsson witnessed when he was 15-years-old, and did nothing to prevent, which he regretted his whole life. 

Salander, using her brains, manages to outwit
 Bjurman, and in an equally-as-graphic revenge scene, regains her independence. Eventually, she meets Blomkvist, and teams up with him to help solve the Vanger mystery. In a way, this was Larsson's redemption of the rape he witnessed, which he did nothing to stop. In fact, the original working title of Dragon Tattoo was another title that translated to Men who Hate Women.

As Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig is the anti-James Bond. Though as physically fit as the British spy,
 Blomkvist is a thinker, not a doer. His biggest weapon is his brains, and he prefers to avoid physical confrontation, and rather, settle things with reason and dialogue. When drawn into violence, Blomkvist is a fish out of water. Craig gives very believable and professional performance as such, giving Blomkvist a very real sense of competence in all of his ventures.

Anyway, back in the Vanger island, Henrik gives Blomkvist (and the viewer) a
 Sparknotes version of his estranged family, who all are antisemites with strong Communist and Nazi ties. Essentially, he's telling Blomkvist that any of them were perfectly capable of killing Harriet. That, of course, is with the exception of Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), Henrik's nephew who he adores, and has given control of the Vanger Corporation to following his retirement. 

Thus begins the mystery. Through a series of Internet searches and old photographs, Blomkvist and Salander are able to put the pieces of the mystery together. David Fincher does a terrific job with the cinematography, and, like in his other works, presents the viewer with the darkest of tones. Somehow, Fincher is always able to make every setting look so dark and eerie (including the prestigious Harvard in
 The Social Network) 
that his settings become an antagonist in the story in its own right.

Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer 
No disrespect meant to Larsson, but if there is anything holding back The Dragon Tattoo, it is the plot. In a screenplay written by Steven Zaillian, he forges a script that must remain loyal to the book, which consists of generic and aforementioned Internet searches, characters who still somehow maintain photographs they took 40 years ago (and conveniently keeping them in a binder that sits atop their coffee table), and best of all, character's explaining their motives in extended soliloquies right before they are about to kill. In other words, things come together way too easily for a mystery that has lingered for 40 years. 

But that could be forgiven because of all the good that
 Dragon Tattoo does. In Fincher's capable hands, and with Craig's stony, professional performance, and of course Mara's boldness, the two-hour and forty-minute feature will not quite feel as long. In a David Fincher film, you are trained to trust nobody, including the protagonist (cough* Fight Club* cough), and that too will keep you hooked from start to finish.

And lest not forget the eerie tunes of Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who again teamed up with Fincher to compose the soundtrack. Unlike
 The Social Network, the duo stray away from using actual songs (with the exception of an awesome rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," produced by Reznor and Ross, and sung by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's during the film's opening credits), and actually compose their own score, which flows with the film seamlessly, and gives it that extra touch of suspense.

But when it is all said and done, it may be the "shock-factor" that remains the most memorable in your mind, most notably the rape scene featuring Mara and Wageningen. Undoubtedly, Larsson, who -- given his history -- abhors the very idea of sexual abuse, wished for that to be the prevailing message, and with the help of Fincher, succeeded in permanently etching that into our very minds, just
 like a tattoo.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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