The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Review
After the posthumous success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy - with millions of book sales worldwide and a series of critically acclaimed Swedish film adaptations - it was only natural that Hollywood would turn its attention towards Larsson’s trio of dark tales. The first book in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is an often grim and disturbing story of life in Sweden focussing on two seemingly disparate characters: Lisbeth Salander, a young computer-hacking misfit who has been in social care since the age of 12, and Mikael Blomkvist, forty-something owner and editor of Millennium magazine who has just been convicted of libel against a powerful businessman. While Salander deals with the unexpectedly shocking fallout of her legal guardian suffering a stroke, Blomkvist is tasked with writing the memoirs of ageing industrialist Henrik Vanger.
However, the Vanger biography is but a smokescreen for an investigation into a dark episode that has been eating away at Henrik for 40 years, namely the disappearance and presumed murder of his beloved grand-niece Harriet on the remote family-owned island of Hedeby (where Vanger and his dysfunctional clan still reside). Blomkvist takes the job, enticed by Vanger’s promise that he will give the disgraced editor the means to take down Wennerström, the billionaire financier who has ruined Blomkvist’s career. As his story slowly intertwines with that of Lisbeth – who works as a researcher for a security company – some secrets long thought buried are revealed, drawing them both into a chilling story of rape, incest and serial murder.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is David Fincher’s 9th feature, continuing his recent run of literary adaptations. His core themes of alienation, obsessive devotion to a cause and of the marginalised thumbing their noses at the higher-ups are present and correct, but as far as the serial killer elements are concerned one could argue that Fincher is going through the motions. He's trodden this ground several times before - to masterful effect - so is he simply adding big-budget gloss to what is already a very competent thriller? Fincher does seem content to let the cold, isolated confines of the genuine Swedish locations do much of the storytelling for him, and there are some curious inconsistencies which are at odds with Fincher’s usual desire for perfection, such as the text seen in the film (books, newspapers, TV news tickers etc.) which flits between Swedish and English at random. But that's a mere nitpick, and, as with Fincher's prior police procedurals, his fascination clearly lies with these characters and the relationships that they share, rather than the grisly minutiae of the killings themselves.
That said, the filmmakers nobly decided that the only way to do justice to Larsson's graphically violent tale was to retain those distressing scenes. The unflinching depictions of various foul acts do not make for easy viewing, yet they're leavened by the love and compassion which radiates from certain other characters. The story always strives to keep that balance in check; sex is used as a powerful weapon by one character and as a soothing distraction by another, and while the sexual politics of the piece is explained more elaborately in the book, we still get a strong flavour of Larsson's fascination with his bed-hopping creations. Some people regard these, ah, flexible sleeping arrangements as onanistic wish-fulfilment (Blomkvist being an obvious cypher for Larsson), while others applaud the story for presenting a refreshingly adult and nuanced take on love and sex in the 21st century. There is a sense that we've never quite gotten to the core of several of the characters, but given that this is a very streamlined version of a sprawling multi-layered novel AND there are two more stories to come, perhaps that's asking for too much.
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the American adaptation - note: not remake - was announced, and not even David Fincher’s involvement could avert the predictable tidal wave of complaints on the internets. And yet, after watching the Swedish version (extended TV cut) I came away distinctly unimpressed because it takes far too many liberties with the story. I don't mean the necessary compression and/or omission of minor characters and events, but the inexplicable loss of key plot points and the creation of several brand new elements. For example, a tiny detail like Mikael's forgotten childhood visit to Hedeby suddenly becomes integral to the plot, in a vain effort to explicitly link Blomkvist’s story to that of Harriet. It’s the sort of idiot-level dot-joining that one would expect from an American version of events, because it's adding twists which are wholly unnecessary. In the book it's a throwaway moment, mentioned by Henrik Vanger to momentarily pique Blomkvist’s interest, and it’s been treated appropriately for Fincher’s film (having been cut from the story).
Steve Zaillian’s script sticks closely to the novel's main beats whilst trimming the fat around them, omitting tangents like Blomkvist’s jail time, Wennerström’s insider at Millennium magazine, and Lisbeth’s mother (which basically duplicates the story thread with Palmgren, her stricken guardian). It only changes details when the strictures of a filmed version deem it necessary, e.g. the ultimate fate of the killer remains the same but the circumstances have been modified for a slightly more audience-friendly finale (which is one of the few alterations shared with the Swedish version). And while the resolution to Harriet’s story has been simplified somewhat, the payoff is no less emotional for it. Some have levied criticism at this film’s closing scene, because the lingering image is of a certain character proving to be more emotionally vulnerable than we might have first thought. However, that moment is lifted almost beat-for-beat from the book which closes in the same way, unlike the Swedish film which ends on a much cheerier note. It’s somewhat ironic that the more compact American edition is what I deem to be the more faithful adaptation, because even though the extended Swedish cut includes more of the wider canvas, it does so at the expense of accuracy to the main story.
Fincher has always exhibited a high level of technical expertise which sets him apart from his contemporaries, and although the dreary visuals of the film aren't terribly interesting they are effective in establishing the chilly environs of Sweden, and the flashback sequences provide contrasting bouts of nostalgic golden colour. There is the occasional attention-grabbing camera move but Fincher seems to have calmed down in that regard, after the multitude of roaming CG camera angles seen earlier in his career. The director does allow himself an indulgence with the nightmarishly surreal title sequence, which may seem like something left over from a Bond movie but is no less stylised than the comic-book titles of the Swedish version. The audio mix always plays a key part in Fincher's movies, embodied here by Ren Klyce's detailed sound design and the unsettling, atonal music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The music constantly needles away at you with its persistent tick-tock tempo, adding an almost subconscious sense of urgency to some scenes and a pervasive feeling of dread to others, while the mournful guitars lament the loss of young Harriet.
The editing of such a densely layered narrative – even a pared down version such as this – is of vital importance; linger too long and the film will grind to a halt, but bash it out too quickly and the audience becomes bewildered. Fincher and his editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall tread that fine line and utilise a pacy rhythm that's always moving the story forward, even if you don't realise it. To that end, if you’re not paying attention early on you will be left behind by the constant movement of the piece, not least when Lisbeth’s apparently unrelated story strand is actually sowing the seeds for what happens in the film’s epilogue. It slows down a touch as Blomkvist settles into his temporary home on Hedeby, the filmmakers still paying careful attention to Lisbeth’s thread, and the two divergent tales are blended together at just the right time - whereupon the narrative kicks into high gear once again. Their diligent work was rightfully recognised with an Oscar win earlier in the year.
The film’s technical proficiency would however be for nought if the actors were not up to the task of bringing these damaged characters to life, and they all do a quite magnificent job. The central roles of Lisbeth and Mikael are portrayed by Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig respectively. The former attracted Fincher’s attention with her spiky little turn in The Social Network, and he had to fight all the way to get the studio's approval. Mara does not disappoint, as she’s created a version of Fröken Salander which, to my mind, is the most faithful interpretation yet. As written, Lisbeth is a walking contradiction of a character, being slightly built yet powerfully strong; sexually alluring yet atypical in appearance; emotionally frigid yet yearning to be loved. Noomi Rapace’s take was (for me) too hard-edged and masculine to qualify as the androgynous waif from the book, externalising Lisbeth’s power too often and playing down her weaknesses, turning her into some sort of Emo superhero. But Mara absolutely nails it here, providing a more internalised, three-dimensional realisation of the character which retains Lisbeth’s fortitude and also examines her fragility. Fincher's lensing also plays a part, focussing on Mara's vulnerable spots (like the nape of her neck) and making her appear very isolated in the frame - this is especially obvious in the first few reels. The character isn’t fully examined but this is out of necessity rather than choice, owing to the stories yet to be told.
Daniel Craig is excellent as Blomkvist, playing against type as the paunchy, burnt-out journalist who gets more than he bargained for. Craig ably juggles the demands of realising Larsson’s superman lover from the book and the on-screen reality of a middle-aged character whose life is starting to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. The performance is embellished by some wonderful little touches, like the almost grandfatherly way he hangs his glasses from his ear, and Craig is never afraid to puncture the tough-guy veneer that’s been bestowed upon him through his association with James Bond. If I had a bad thing to say, it’s that an out-of-shape Daniel Craig is still in far better condition than most of us mere mortals, so that aspect of the character doesn’t always ring true. Still, I’ll gladly take Craig’s portrayal over Michael Nyqvist’s interpretation, as even though the latter's ‘cuddly’ appearance fits the bill he has about as much charisma as a set of garden furniture.
The remainder of the cast is very good. Christopher Plummer exudes paternal warmth and a generation’s worth of angst as Henrik Vanger, and Steven Berkoff plays Vanger’s loyal attorney, Dirch Frode. Goran Visnjic gets a small amount of face time as Dragan Armansky, Lisbeth’s long-suffering boss at Milton Security, and Yorick van Wageningen is Nils Bjurman, Lisbeth’s perverted new guardian. He plays it absolutely dead straight and the character is all the more evil for his sheer banality, and van Wageningen’s corpulent frame only adds to the revulsion we feel as he continually abuses Lisbeth. Stellan Skarsgård’s turn as Martin Vanger, Harriet’s brother, is underscored with a latent sense of unease, and is a welcome antidote to all the good guys he usually ends up playing. Geraldine James is a nicely hostile Cecilia Vanger (thankfully she doesn’t sleep with Blomkvist in either film version), and Joely Richardson has a brief but pivotal role in the film as Anita Vanger, Harriet’s cousin. Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s married ‘friend with benefits’, is played in a self-assured manner by Robin Wright.
All in all, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a bleak, atmospheric chiller that plumbs the dark depths of human depravity to show us the light on the other side. Showing this amount of pain and suffering in a $90 million dollar American studio picture is a brave move which you feel that only David Fincher could’ve accomplished, and yet there's a lingering feeling that the director is working on auto-pilot, as the film never quite manages to penetrate the ice-cold emotional veneer of some of the characters. But perhaps that’s a limitation of the source rather than a shortcoming on Fincher’s behalf, and in the hands of many a Hollywood hack this would be their Chinatown, yet in a director's oeuvre that's already studded with modern classics the film merely ranks as very good.
The movie was shot digitally on the RED One and Epic cameras and finished on a 4K Digital Intermediate, so the source is pristine. Framed at 2.40 widescreen and encoded with AVC, there’s lots of fine detail yet the image isn’t aggressively sharp. Jeff Cronenweth's monochromatic colour scheme and restrained contrast contribute to this slight 'flattening' effect, although the picture becomes punchier and more lucid after a few key revelations have played out in the film, as if to suggest that the characters are seeing things more clearly. Skin tones are suitably sullen, and the realistic makeup lets us see blotchy skin and dark circles under eyes, details which aren't lost on this Blu-ray incarnation. The blacks are deep and rich, with quite superb shadow detail. There’s not a hint of any edge enhancement, although I did spot some banding on a couple of slow fades. Whether that’s due to encoding trouble or an artefact of the editing itself, I don’t know, and thankfully it's an isolated incident. Regardless, this is an authentic presentation of a typically murky Fincher production.
The audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, bringing the attentive sound design to the fore. Music swirls around the sound stage with menacing portent, as do various scene-setting effects. Who would've thought that a patio door could sound so darned scary? The speech is rendered exceptionally well, which is crucial for a film that hangs so many plot points and character beats on brief scraps of dialogue. The mix doesn’t have an expansive lower end, with ill-defined bass that lacks slam and depth (compare the club scene in this film to the one in The Social Network) but the LFE is rarely called upon so this is a small complaint.
The extra features start on disc 1 with David Fincher's audio commentary, which is a typically insightful and well-paced chat track, the director dropping a multitude of titbits about all aspects of the production. Disc 2 houses the bulk of the extras, which are arranged as if we are leafing through the Vanger archives and are presented in high quality 1080p video.
Divided into five main parts, we start off with Men Who Hate Women, a short piece with comments from Fincher, screenwriter Steve Zaillian, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara about their introductions to Larsson's story. Next is Character, which splits into sections for Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist and Martin Vanger respectively. Each section contains several featurettes in which the relevant character is examined from various points of view, including the casting, costume design, the actor's process and so on. As with most of the other features on this disc, the talking heads are blended with raw camera footage (inc. alternate takes, flubs, and deleted material) plus behind-the-scenes video to give context to the filmmakers' comments.
On Location covers the shooting of the film in Sweden and Hollywood. The former looks at the challenges of making the movie in Larsson's native land, with five featurettes that document certain scenes, including the subway bag theft, the final shot of the movie and the last shot of the production. There's also a funny glimpse at a scene which had to be abandoned because of the persistent rain on the day. The Hollywood section includes seven different segments which encompass the casting of Armansky (complete with Goran Visnjic's final audition video), the creation of the famous upside-down shot of Lisbeth, the difficult filming of the rape/revenge sequences, plus three more videos that look at the shooting of various interior sets.
Post Production lets us peek In The Cutting Room as the editors attempt the mammoth task of editing the film. It was not only a tricky narrative to manage, but the flexibility of the high-resolution digital photography allowed for an almost endless amount of tweaking, like reframing, image stabilisation, the splicing of one take with another etc. ADR admits us into some recording sessions of automated dialogue replacement, with Mara and Skarsgård overseen by Fincher. This procedure is a necessity for virtually any film, given that the live recording of the dialogue is often beset with technical problems. Main Titles gives us a multi-angle run-through of the startling CG title sequence, with optional commentary by Blur Studios' Tim Miller. Visual Effects Montage uses before-and-after comparisons to reveal the huge amount of frighteningly transparent CG work which augmented much of the film. I got a real kick out of seeing anamorphic-style lens flares throughout the show, even though they couldn't have been real because it was shot entirely digital, and the effects montage confirmed my suspicions. My only quibble with this section is the lack of anything examining the sound design or the music score, but Blu-ray producer David Prior has said that his schedule was so tight he simply didn't get the opportunity to speak to the gentlemen involved.
Promotion entails the marketing of the film. We get the Hard Copy viral video, a faux TV exposé piece done in true '80s style, complete with authentic VHS artefacts. An optional commentary from David Prior is available. The seven TV Spots do what they say on the tin. The Trailers section includes the red-band Theatrical Teaser (which looks very washed-out for some reason), the regular Theatrical Trailer (listed as Trailer 3), and two other variants listed as Trailer 4 and Trailer 5. Lastly there's a brief sequence which covers the creation of the Metal One Sheet poster which now commands ridiculously large sums of money.
Running for just over four hours, this is a terrific set of video extras which explores almost every aspect of the production with an objective eye, and it never reverts to the dull outpouring of back-slapping platitudes (which blights many extra features these days). Add that to the excellent commentary, a scattering of easter eggs and the quirky packaging (there are random variations of the Blu-ray disc art, and the DVD looks like a pirated DVD-R!), and this is a quite stupendous combination of goodies. There is also an Ultraviolet digital copy, for those who care about such things.
Please note: The movie disc of this North American Blu-ray release is locked to region A, while the extras disc is all region. The DVD version is locked to region 1, and presents the film in 2.40 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. David Fincher's audio commentary is also included on the DVD.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an absorbing adaptation of Stieg Larsson's compelling crime classic, presenting a lean version that retains all the core beats of the story. It's by no means at the top of David Fincher's filmography, but it's a solid effort nonetheless. The Blu-ray presentation is first-rate in virtually every department, and as a whole this set comes highly recommended.
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