Now available on DVD, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” ambitiously undertakes to adapt Stieg Larsson’s enormously popular international best-seller. Those who have read the novel will appreciate the difficulty of reducing this intensely plotted work and the at least partial success of the filmmakers in doing so. (They may also be the only ones able to follow its Byzantine complexities.) Credit director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillan with actually reducing the numerous elements of the story to only two hours and forty minutes of running time.
Credit also the producers for casting Daniel Craig and relative newcomer Rooney Mara in the starring roles. It took nerve to cast Craig against type as Mikael Blomkvist—an intrepid but somewhat addled journalist—when we have come to accept him as the new James Bond. An even bigger leap of faith brought the enviable role of Lisbeth Salander to Mara, whose slim film resume is most notable for a small supporting role in Fincher’s “The Social Network.” She received an Oscar nomination for her riveting performance here.
The novel comprises two main story lines: Blomkvist’s attempt to clear his good name after being jailed for libel and his pursuit of a serial murderer. Both these lines converge in a “cover story,” of sorts, which has Blomkvist writing the memoirs of Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger, played with a quirky austerity by Christopher Plummer. Zaillan all but discards the libel story in the adaptation, which makes the movie’s ending a bit anticlimactic, the main plot having already essentially concluded. But this is a necessary truncation: the murder mystery is hard enough to unravel—for both Blomkvist and the audience—all by itself.
A major subplot involves Lisbeth’s attempt to free herself from the prison that Swedish social services have inadvertently put her in, in the name of protecting this troubled young woman. Her attempted murder of her abusive father eventually brings Lisbeth under the humiliating sway of a loathsome “guardian,” whose rape of her occasions the movie’s most challenging moments. Lisbeth’s dealings with him and most of the other males she encounters make her a feminist hero.
She’s tough to like, however, admire her though we may. Looking like a Goth waif, breaking the law early and often, sullen and silent in her own anti-social network, Lisbeth distances herself from friend and foe alike. She’s a computer geek with a photographic memory who beats people up and takes off on her motorcycle. Mara fully inhabits this absorbing character, taking some major risks as an actor. The role calls for her to steal scenes from the redoubtable Craig, and she does so regularly after the plot brings the Lisbeth and Mikael together as detectives and lovers.
Along the way to a muted conclusion, the screenplay brings out the themes of men’s destructive dominance over women, the persistence of past evils in the present, the dark secrets of glamorous families. I liked Stellan Skarsgard’s work as Martin, the polished, smooth scion of the Vanger family, whose character brings all of these themes into focus in a climactic (and daunting) scene where he tortures the helpless Blomkvist.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is what is known in the trade as a “hard R,” its rating richly earned by scenes of rape and torture, continual profanity, and sporadic violence. Even fans of the novel, who know what’s coming, might approach this one with caution, as its treatment of deeply offensive attitudes and behavior may offend some audience members. The film won all but unanimous critical raves and a number of Oscar nominations— for Mara, Fincher, and Zaillan—and a well-deserved win for film editing. With the cautions and provisos noted above, highly recommended.