With Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson. Written by Steven Zaillian. Directed by David Fincher. Rated R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language). 158 minutes.
In one of the cruel ironies of life, Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, missed out on his books becoming an international phenomenon, inspiring not only a trilogy of adaptations in Sweden but now, with the remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, in the U.S. as well. In this initial entry, we meet journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just lost an ugly libel suit, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a bisexual goth girl, computer whiz and woman with a complicated history.
For those who have somehow avoided the book series and Swedish films, there are actually two stories going on. The first is the mystery story. Mikael is hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to research the decades-old disappearance of a beloved niece. It’s a complex story involving Henrik’s family, wealthy businessmen who live in a family compound on an island. The family members resent this outsider, although some are seemingly more cooperative than others.
Lisbeth is an expert researcher who ferrets out information about people through means legal and illegal. Her problem is that she is considered unstable and remains under supervision by the state through a legal guardian. When her longtime guardian falls ill, his replacement is someone who demands sexual favors of an increasingly ugly nature. We come to learn that Lisbeth is not the sort of woman one wishes to cross regardless of what one thinks of her appearance or lifestyle.
This leads to the second story which is not only about Lisbeth gaining some measure of control over her life, but her evolving relationship with Mikael. His career-ending libel verdict was a frame-up, but he can’t prove it. Lisbeth, the heroine of the trilogy, can help set things right in her extremely unorthodox way.
Those coming into the film cold will discover what fans of the books and the Swedish films did: there are some fascinating and unconventional characters here, taking matters into their own hands to see that justice is done. Newcomers may be shocked at some of the violence, particularly a horrific rape scene where Lisbeth is forced to submit to the depravity of her guardian. Yet those who saw the earlier films may have a different reaction. The material here has been subtly toned down for American audiences. Lisbeth is a tad more accessible while some of the shocking scenes have been softened. They’re there, but where one might have averted one eyes in the original film, now it’s merely a scene of violence.
Although it’s a stellar cast, the movie rises or falls on the work of its two leads. Daniel Craig has not had much luck outside of his James Bond movies, which is a shame because he’s a solid, character-driven actor. He gets that Mikael is a man of principle who has been compromised and is operating under a cloud. Rooney Mara isn’t quite as in-your-face as Noomi Rapace was playing Lisbeth in the Swedish films, yet she is both tough and sensitive, portraying Lisbeth as someone hiding behind a hard shell because of a painful history only partially revealed in this first installment.
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a tough mystery thriller that will play best with people coming into it without expectations. If Hollywood is to continue the series, then the adaptation to American sensibilities needs to be thought through. It’s not clear if Hollywood is capable of capturing the twisted ambiguities yet to come. ***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.