Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in Seattle area theaters on December 21st – with some theaters hosting post 7pm screenings on the 20th}

A crusading journalist and an antisocial master-hacker with a photographic memory whose approach to justice is refreshingly direct return to the big screen in David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon TattooFincher has fashioned a good looking and relatively tight presentation of an enjoyable book that's a bit of a kitchen sink sort of mess.  The film even manages to poke at the source material with good natured humor. Most memorably when Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) explains his family tree to Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who mutters he's never going to keep everyone straight. That's OK we want to assure him. Most readers couldn't either. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself – what with assuming folks already know the story. If you haven't read the book, so let me back up…
The picture opens with a man unwrapping a framed pressed flower on his birthday. He's Henrik Vanger, the patriarch of a large, wealthy Swedish family. Such a gift is an annual tradition going on forty years. Beautiful as the flowers are they're not a welcome arrival.  His niece Harriet had given him the original versions in his collection. But after her disappearance and presumed death they continued – a mocking reminder from her killer.  Henrik has spent considerable time and wealth attempting to unravel the truth of what had happened to Harriet so many years ago. His latest approach is to recruit Mikael Bloomkvist, the coolest middle aged liberal leaning crusading journalist of all time to try and crack the case. Normally Blomkvist wouldn't take such work, but he's just gotten himself in a mess of trouble over a libelous story against another industry tycoon. With the promise of dirt on the industrialist who burned him and a fat payday Bloomkvist agrees to take on the forty year old mystery. He doesn't really expect anything to come of it but he dives into the investigation with gusto. It's a closed box mystery – Harriet disappeared on a family owned island whose exit was blocked by an accident. So the most reasonable belief is that one of the family members killed her and got away with hiding the body. It's a pretty dysfunctional family. Even if you think yours is bad – odds are the Vangers are worse. Or at least likely beat you in a 'how many Nazi's are in your family?' contest. Hence there are many suspects to choose from.
In parallel we meet the real reason people love the Millenium books – Lisbeth Salander. The ultimate fuck-you tough girl heroine of the stories. Small, tough as nails and emotionally damaged in ways only suggested in the first picture she's a huge asset to those she helps and the devil incarnate to those who cross her. Salander comes onboard as Blomkvist's research assistant – or as I like to refer to it – as solver of most of the hard problems.  It's a rich character and Rooney Mara delivers on it.  In this version she's softer than the books, more withdrawn and internally focused than someone placing on the autism continuum. It's a tough role to get right. While Mara plays it more approachable than the books it's an equally valid interpretation from that of Noomi Rapace who originated the role. It's not just all in the performance – the look itself is subtlety different, down to the white-blonde eyebrows framed by her jet black dyed hair.  Daniel Craig is well cast as Blomkvist – and manages to be believable both as a determined righteous journalist and the serial bedder of woman as Larsson envisioned.

The picture looks great and visually matches the feel of the written stories – particularly the outside shots. Not a surprise given the director involved. Having read the books, and seen the earlier film treatment of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I'm starting to realize in many ways how routine a mystery it is. Fincher wisely reduces some of the random complexity in Larsson's work streamlining the story-telling. To the extent that any 158 minute movie is streamlined.
It's hard to separate the current film by Fincher from the original Swedish language series of films. Given the input constraints it's not surprising the two have many similarities. Frankly, in my view there's nothing truly wrong in the original films requiring a reboot. With the exception of viewers having to read subtitles and reduced opportunities for Hollywood actors. The current film is somewhat simplified even though the runtime isn't that different – but the narrative feels smoother than the Swedish version. Some purists of the book may disagree but I liked the choices made here. The details removed don't seem that important and reduce the meandering feel that originates in the novels. What works for a book when you're luxuriating in the over written details isn't necessarily a good match for the screen. I also liked the bits of humor introduced here and there (particularly a frank assessment of Blomkvist's bedroom habits during Salander's background check on him). As always in this sort of situation I chuckled at what I'm assuming was supposed to be realistically accented English – in an environment where no one would be speaking it in the first place. And there's the unintended humor of Blomkvist and Salander deciding that him being nearly shot in the head is a great lead into sexy-time. But nobody's perfect.

Fincher brings more of a cinematic look to the film as opposed to the original which at times had a slight made for TV visual bias. While there are traces of humor the subject matter is still unavoidably dark. It's not as though Fincher cut out (or cut away) from the more extreme sexual violence central to the plot. Well, maybe cut away a little bit compared to the Swedish film – but the point is not going to be missed. The most significant single improvement is Fincher's choice for the final scene. With that simple sequence he raises the level of sympathy for Salander in a way I hadn't experienced in any of the other forms of this story.  

As a whole The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be a win for most readers of the book who inexplicably haven't seen Noomi Rapace nail Salander in the original films. It's also a great way to checkout the story if you haven't read the original series (much like seeing Twilight is better for not having read the book).  Frankly, unless you're super dogmatic about no remakes I think there's plenty to admire in this film regardless where you fall in terms of experience with the series. Imperfections that do exist can be traced back to the books – which were super fun but don't necessarily improve with each revisiting.