I’ve been almost avoiding all things Dragon Tattoo. Not in a malicious way, I’ve just not really come in contact or pursued any of Stieg Larsson’s work. So I was nice and clean from all the books and adaptations and sequels and things so I could watch this with a clear mind and take the film for what it is. So let’s bleach our eyebrows and dive on in.
Firstly the intro titles took my breath away. They were almost reminiscent of a Bond opening, with black oil morphing into various shapes and images (which my filmic companion informed me were references to the later books in the series). Though the rest of the film was full-on and unnerving, it in no way matched the intensity of the opening credits. Not a complaint, though.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the story of Mikael (Daniel Craig) who investigates the 40+ year old disappearance of a rich families’ daughter. To aid him in his search is titular dragon-tattooed psychopath Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) as they scratch delve into the history of an estranged family on a mysterious island. That’s about as much as I can say without giving too much away.
My initial thoughts, as an uninitiated viewer, were that it reminded me of Mathieu Kassovitz’s The Crimson Rivers (2000). While both films deal with detectives venturing out into isolated parts of Europe to investigate depraved killings, the comparison is more in context than in style or plot. Both stories address Europe’s dark Nazi past. It hadn’t occurred to me that modern Europe was ashamed of that chapter in their history, and that it was something that still played on a lot of people’s minds, not just the victims. In comparison the dark chapter in Australia’s history during the 21st century would have to be Stolen Generation, though the anger in that event lies mostly with the victims. It is as it is in America and their past with slavery: once the olive branch is extended, all blemishes are swept under the rug and we can convince ourselves that those outrages are behind us. But those scars still remain, and the damage is still felt.
This theme pervades other parts of the film, particularly with Mara’s Lisbeth. The crimes committed against her have scarred her, changed her into the damaged individual she is today. It comes as no surprise that the original story was called Men Who Hate Women; women very much are victims in the film, and men in many capacities are the perpetrators. Irreversible and heinous crimes are committed against women, some of them on-screen, some thankfully off. Fincher pulls no punches in the depiction of rape, and the experience is uncomfortable if not harrowing.
Ultimately the impression I got of this very European story is that, beneath the veneer of the modern, secular, progressive Sweden that I’ve heard about lays a dark and violent underbelly. Like pretty much everywhere on earth, violence and abuse pervades behind closed doors. Plumbing these depths can be hazardous to one’s health and to one’s soul, both for the characters and the audience. Even with reasonably happy endings, no one gets away unscathed. On another note, I like that Mikael ends up sleeping with Lisbeth, a girl that isn’t that much older than his own daughter. We the audience cinematically expect the male and female leads to fuck, but the age gap adds another element to Mikael’s character. He’s a piece of shit though on another, lesser level from the villains. He’s a man, he’s flawed and he’s dominated by his urges and ego, evidenced as much from the final scene of the film.
The acting was stellar. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth in particular is a revelation. She dominated every scene she’s in, physically and mentally. Mara is in a unique position in that she’s relatively unknown at this point; she IS Lisbeth, it now defines her. What surprised me most was that all the (amazing, largely Euro-centric) cast spoke with Swedish accents (with varying levels of success (I’m looking at you Mr. Craig)). It really helped to localize the film to Sweden, never letting you forget. I had a problem with the Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of another Swedish character in Wallander. In that miniseries (another English-language interpretation) the cast all speak in their natural English accents and you often forget it’s a Swedish story with Swedish characters. It’s the only the odd uniform or the fact that the cops carry guns that you notice there’s something wrong and, despite that series’ high quality in acting and direction, it hurts the immersion. It’s like when an actor can’t do an accent well (again, looking at you Mr. Craig) and you’re reminded that you’re not viewing a character, you’re watching an actor and the whole thing is a fallacy.
Outside of the intro, the music was fairly low-key. I don’t know if that was on purpose or that I didn’t really notice. Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose’s score didn’t have any particularly distinctive or, as I said, I just didn’t notice. The visuals were nice, and there were some very great shots, with some nice anamorphic work. I think though my biggest problem with me was the length and the set up of some of the narrative, which can be a pitfall of an accurate adaption.
Perhaps in the act of trying to follow too closely to the source material means that you pack too much in. There are differences, I’m told by my companion, but it is a big ole’ movie. There’s a lot to take in, though the film is largely easy to follow. And the moments that are hard to follow or don’t make sense all that much mean that they’re setting things up and allowing for elements that lead into storylines that take place later in the book series, from what I’m told. For example, the ‘libel suit’ sub-story, which makes sense for the most part but bogs down the third act and feels a bit tacked-on. All things I ignore in respect of a faithful adaption, but they are sins in any other kind of film.
So, a tense thriller. Grim and unsettling, disturbing and, though a little flawed, a very enjoyable film. The film is hard to watch at times, but the tense moments can sometimes be quite far apart from each other, giving you plenty of time to recover in such a large film. But the film is worth watching for Rooney Mara’s performance alone, and despite his inconsistent Swedish accent, Daniel Craig is always a welcome site in all his skinny-jeaned-boot-wearing greatness. Worth seeing.