(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
Man, some of the gloomiest movies come out around the holidays (and in particular, my birthday). The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was marketed as “the feel bad movie of Christmas” and by all means it delivers. But there’s more to it than that. When it was over my sister Hannah remarked, “That movie was totally BAMF.”
Of course, I had to agree.
Tattoo is the first part of a trilogy and based on Stieg Larsson’s bestselling books. As someone who has read them and disliked the Swedish adaptations I had high expectations (this is all covered in my Tattooed series). I waited for months to see this new version. I read everything I could get my hands on, concerned about whether this film would get it right. In the end I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be disappointed.
And guess what? I wasn’t. Although this Tattoo didn’t have the emotional resonance I wanted it succeeded in nailing the story. It was also brave enough to commit to the material and go where few American films have dared to go. The nature of its crimes are laid bare before the audience, and my God… it was a relief to see how shockingly accurate they were. The film didn’t pull any punches. It also didn’t shy from the way its titular heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), retaliates during some key scenes.
Here’s why: in Larsson’s world every rapist and misogynist loser gets what’s coming to him. He’s kind of like Tarantino (we’ll just wait for Django Unchained to prove that once again this Christmas- see what I mean?). I’m not one to enjoy anyone’s suffering, but there are two things a rapist can encounter that have made me laugh: anti-rape condoms and Lisbeth Salander.
This isn’t to say that Tattoo is a straight up revenge flick. The core of the story is more of murder-mystery that’s quite complex and involves many characters. It isn’t easy viewing, and director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian aren’t particularly interested in spelling things out for the audience. This was particularly painful for the crowd at the screening I attended. I won’t go into specifics but they really weren’t bright.
Then there are the subplots. Just like the book Tattoo keeps its protagonists separate for almost half of the story. We have Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist who is hired for some detective work on the remote island of Hedestad. I found myself identifying with Blomkvist more than I ever did before, watching him struggle in sub-zero temperatures (I lived in Minnesota for ten years) and living in a place with no cell phone reception (I’ve encountered this at remote art colonies in New York and California, and yes, even in Portland). Overall he comes across as somewhat intelligent but mostly a hapless, sensitive fish out of water- not quite the Blomkvist I remember in the book. He makes some dumb decisions, one of which is the subject of a monologue near the end of the movie. This somehow managed to amuse and scare the shit out of me at the same time.
Then of course we have Salander, whose life takes some harrowing turns before Blomkvist hires her as a research assistant. With legions of Sally fans it seems inevitable that Mara would fail to meet expectations. In my opinion she was Salander, although some unnecessary liberties were taken. When Dragan Armaksky (Goran Višnjić) introduces her character he notes, “She’s different.” This proves itself true on many levels- her portrayal is no exception. Mara’s Salander had a brittleness and vulnerability I didn’t expect. However it didn’t necessarily hurt the character. She still managed to alienate plenty of people. She still had poor social skills. And, above all, she fucked shit up old school. That’s what I came to see and that was exactly what she did.
Of course, once Blomkvist and Salander meet the plot begins to jell and the mystery unravels in all its disturbing, gut-wrenching glory. It is here that the movie excels but also fails. Fincher documents the characters uncovering crimes but has no interest in exploring the repercussions or what those crimes actually mean, particularly for the victims. There is also no time spent on the hypocrisy of covering them up. They are merely plot devices to be resolved. Sadly, that is about as far as you can get from Larsson’s original intentions.
What you do get in its stead are several incredible setpieces and some insanely creepy dialogue. When Blomkvist is confronted by one of Tattoo‘s main villains, he is told, “We are not so different, you and I. We both have urges. Mine just require more towels.”
There are other unexpected flourishes. Surprisingly, Tattoo has its own brand of dark humor, most of it revealed in the details. There were two t-shirts that got laughs, a cat named “Cat,” and the clever placement of a Happy Meal at an unexpected moment (I noted, “Why would you be eating a Happy Meal when you look so sad?”). Also, I’m pretty sure I’ll never hear Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” in the same way ever again.
The casting of the supporting characters was excellent, in particular Christopher Plummer, Geraldine James, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and (of course) Stellan Skarsgård. I have to give props to Yorick van Wageningen for tackling his role, which was perhaps the most punishing of all (onscreen and off set, apparently). And lastly, I appreciated Višnjić’s Armansky, who is perhaps the only empathetic character in the film. While discussing Salander with an upset Blomkvist he asks for lenience but seems protective all the same: “She’s had a hard life, let’s not make it harder.” It made me like the guy.
I suppose it’s a shame that despite having capable actors playing interesting characters we never really get to know them. They come and go, having a scene here or there, but for some reason they don’t make a big impression. On the other hand the images do. That’s all a part of Fincher’s grisly but clinical aesthetic. My roommate Lauren said it best, “It was the best David Fincher adaptation of the book.” I think that’s the most accurate way to put it.
So if you’re planning on seeing Tattoo just buckle in and prepare to be intrigued and uncomfortable from frame one. Which reminds me- what about those opening credits? I was getting goosebumps and kept thinking, “What the hell am I looking at?” I’m quite sure I was looking at birds, bees, sex, then a lot of people getting their heads bashed in. I suppose that in Fincher’s Tattoo that is the circle of life.