The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: R
Genre: Drama
Craig plays a journalist solving the 40-year disappearance of a woman with the help of a young female hacker.
Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer
Director: David Fincher
Release: Opened Dec 20, 2011
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Editorial Review

‘Dragon’ beats an underwhelming tattoo, but the girl rocks

By Ann Hornaday
Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is one of this season's buzziest movies, as hotly anticipated by its partisans as any installment of "Harry Potter" or "Twilight." Like Harry and "Twilight's" Bella Swan, the title character of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novels has grown into a literary cult figure of freakish devotion.

Admittedly, Rooney Mara's portrayal of the punked-out cyber-genius Lisbeth Salander does much to advance the appeal of this spiky heroine, whose victimization at the hands of piggish men and her subsequent avenging fury have made her a feminist avatar for the WikiLeaks era.

More profitably, at least where Hollywood is concerned, she allows "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and director David Fincher to indulge in the kind of lurid, pulp violence and sadistic rituals that make torture-porn such a reliable genre, while flattering the intellectual and artistic pretensions of the audience by draping them in high-minded themes having to do with buried history, bourgeois hypocrisy and sexism. Handsomely filmed and impeccably acted, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is at once satisfying and underwhelming, a pristine, cooly atmospheric procedural thriller that comes to the party a tad overdressed in inexplicably breathless hype.

Fans of Larsson's book and Danish director Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 adaptation will no doubt be gratified by Fincher's treatment of the text, his tweaks to the ending notwithstanding (not surprisingly, this bigger-budgeted version is more polished, although there are passages where it's almost note-for-note identical to its Swedish-language counterpart). Those viewers who never caught "Dragon" fever might continue to wonder what all the fuss is about, while harboring doubts about Larsson and his cinematic interpreters having their politically enlightened cake while eating their exploitative thrills, too.

Before things get sordid, they begin quietly enough, as Stockholm journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is convicted of libeling a Swedish businessman, a blow sure to imperil his authority-skewering magazine, Millennium. Luckily, a freelance opportunity quickly presents itself: A wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Blomkvist to research a decades-long mystery involving Vanger's niece Harriet and her disappearance from the family island in the 1960s.

When Blomkvist arrives on the island, he's met with an assortment of Vangers, a few with links to the family's Nazi past, a few garden-variety eccentrics. In time, Blomkvist is also joined by Lisbeth, the sullen, leather-clad computer hacker hired by Vanger to vet Blomkvist's record, then hired by Blomkvist to assist in the case.

Filmed by Fincher with the high visual style and intricate sound design for which he's become famous, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" exudes a bleak, wintry sense of spiritual chill, as Blomkvist's research takes him beneath the progressive veneer of Swedish society and self-image and into its loathsome psychological and political recesses. The movie's most unsettling scenes, a brutal rape and an equally torturous act of revenge, are staged by Fincher for maximum shock value. But for the most part, he plays down his stylistic signatures, preferring to stick to screenwriter Steven Zaillian's lucid script and allowing the performances to project the story's most subtle meanings.

Craig and Mara - who was cast after a much-publicized search for the perfect Lisbeth - slip effortlessly into roles, even if Craig eventually lets his Swedish accent drop by the wayside. (Lest viewers worry about the actors who originated those roles in the first version, Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace can currently be seen in "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.") But while Craig and such reliable players as Plummer, Robin Wright (as Blomkvist's publisher) and Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson (as two of many Vangers) deliver consistently terrific performances, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is, true to its title, about a girl.

As Lisbeth, Mara proves to be a mesmerizing screen presence, the wholesome WASP Everygirl she briefly played in Fincher's "The Social Network" giving way to a fierce, brooding creature whose feral intensity proves as alluring as it is menacing.

With her pale visage, multiple piercings and ever-changing hairstyles (she enters the scene with her hair spiked into an inky-black coxcomb), Lisbeth's look-at-me-don't-look-at-me personal style is but an extension of her complicated persona, which contains multitudes. Even at its most sordid, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" remains watchable largely thanks to Mara's in-for-a-pound embodiment of Lisbeth's explosive, righteous rage and covert vulnerability (she may be unsocialized, but anyone who spends that much time on her hair cares deeply about other people's perceptions).

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" ultimately hinges on structural tropes that feel too familiar to be truly groundbreaking ("The Silence of the Lingonberries," anyone?), and the mystery's solution, when it finally comes, feels rushed. Even at the film's most procedural, though, Lisbeth exerts an insistent, edgy command of the frame. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" may want it both ways, getting its tawdry kicks while tsk-tsking those who deliver them in real life, but Mara's bristling, unbridled performance gives the film the ballast it needs to pull off that curious, undeniably engrossing, balancing act.

Contains brutal violent content, including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and profanity.

Contains brutal violent content, including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and profanity.

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Photos: London premiere