When Steve Zaillian first told me about his plans to adapt Stieg Larsson's international bestseller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," I was encouraged by the fact that he understood that the engine of the first book in the Millennium series' success is not the pedantic mystery or the womanizing muckracker Mikael Blomkvist. It's Lisbeth Salander.
While Noomi Rapace was terrific as the tough and resourceful hacker in the Swedish film trilogy (which scored $214 million worldwide and $22 million stateside), because the three films were edited down from the six-part TV series, they were choppy and heavy on melodramatic plotting. I was hoping that with Zaillian and David Fincher–who knows his way around serial killers and atmospheric thrillers, from "Seven" to "Zodiac," and featured strong women in "Alien 3" and "Panic Room"–we would see a more satisfying filmic adaptation of the first Larsson book. (For my money, number two is even better.) I was not disappointed.
Do check out the movie, which Sony will open a day early, on December 20. (If you have not read the books or seen the films, SPOILER ALERT.) "The Social Network'''s Rooney Mara delivers Salander in a smart expertly executed film that takes time to make clear plot developments and changing dynamics between investigator Blomkvist (well-played by Daniel Craig) and the androgynous punk researcher who has a woman in her bed when he first knocks on her door. They come to share mutual respect and find each other sexy. The world is Sweden, the English (except for Brit Craig) lightly accented. In close quarters in a chilly winter cottage as Blomkvist and Salander explore the mystery of a girl missing for 40 years, she instigates sex. "I'm older and we work together," Blomkvist cautions. She's on top.
And she's the hero of this movie. It's to Sony and the filmmakers' credit that this Hollywood tentpole allows the male hero to be one-upped by the younger assistant who runs rings around him on the computer and literally saves his ass. Craig's Blomkvist is a pleasant guy who adores women–especially his married Millennium editor (Robin Wright)–and he does soften Salander's heart. A tad. But she's driving this train.
Given the way women are depicted in media and treated in the real world (see the Iranians in "A Separation" or the ethnic cleansing victims in Angelina Jolie's powerful and intimate Bosnian war drama "The Land of Blood and Honey"), it's Salander's time. Larsson's mission was to pit his action anti-heroine against a society that punishes women, including her–the book was originally titled "Men Who Hate Women"–and that's what Zallian and Fincher punch up here. They got it right.
By keeping the film cooly Scandinavian and razor-sharp–despite the misleadingly surreal Bond-like opening sequence, with its oil-dripping S & M imagery–the filmmakers do not betray its source. While it is a languorously paced procedural dense with flashbacks and besotted with computers, the movie will play for fans of the book. (The minor changes are matters of locale and efficiency, not earth-shattering.) The film is more smart-house than mainstream–much like "The Social Network"– but should do gangbuster business all over the world.
Fincher is nothing if not a sublime craftsman. But this hard-R violent genre film, while it deserves awards attention on many fronts, won't seduce many mainstream Academy seniors, who are more wowed by heart-warming nostalgic period pieces like Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Michel Hazanavicius's "The Artist," Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," which will duke it out with such noisy VFX pictures as the "Harry Potter" finale in the technical categories. Even the Broadcast Film Critics only saw fit to nominate "Dragon Tattoo" for editing and score.
And no, Mara did not land one of six BFCA nomination slots. We'll see what the SAG, Golden Globes and BAFTA gangs do. Once critics voices' are heard, the momentum could change. It's trending at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes for now. A sampling of reviews is below.
"David Fincher's much-anticipated return to serial-killer territory is a fastidiously grim pulp entertainment that plays like a first-class train ride through progressively bleaker circles of hell."
"This fastidious, technically stellar Hollywood telling of one of the great literary sensations of recent times is highlighted by a bewitching performance from Rooney Mara as the punked-out computer research whiz Lisbeth Salander and remains an absorbing story, as it was on the page and in the 2009 Swedish screen version,..The film offers no surprises in the way it's told,..It's unmistakably a Fincher film; the superlatively sharp visuals, the immaculate design, the innate knack for melding sound and music, the chill and menace evoked from both modern cities and open spaces, the beautiful people marked by deep scars and flaws — all feel part of his habitual landscape."
"Mara cuts through scene after scene like a swift, dark blade,..This is a bleak but mesmerizing piece of filmmaking; it offers a glancing, chilled view of a world in which brief moments of loyalty flicker between repeated acts of betrayal."
"It is to Mara’s immense credit that she emerges from Rapace’s ink-black shadow to imprint her own design on Lisbeth, her wan, open face capturing each contradictory emotion roiling inside,..Fincher’s direction is immaculate. His 'Girl' might lack the propulsion of 'Se7en' or the slow-burn desiccation-of-souls quality of 'Zodiac,' but it is a controlled, mesmerising, beautiful thriller scarred by scenes of unshakeable brutality and breathless tension,..Changed ending aside, Fincher’s take is as faithful as it is fearless. And Mara rocks."
"[It] withholds none of the sophistication or intelligence of its cinematic forebear, creating a dyspeptic thriller that succeeds precisely because it flirts with conventionality until audiences themselves start to want anything but that,..[Mara] seems to know what an opportunity the film may be for her, and she throws herself into the role with an enthusiasm that manages to feel carefully controlled,..Much like it must be in Salander’s world, Mara executes her role (and by proxy, her character’s daily life) with maximum efficiency,..Her performance is worth watching just to see when and if the character ever smiles in the film."