The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Review

Remaking an excellent movie is not an enviable task for any filmmaker – especially when the source material was so recently imported to the United States from Sweden. More difficult yet is the fact that the Swedish version is adapted from a book, further constricting the American version’s creative license. What audiences get in this incarnation then is almost a replica of its predecessor. Where this version is identical to the former, it is excellent entertainment. Where this version strays, it is still excellent entertainment, just not as good as the original. Nevertheless, the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an engrossing story and the movie to watch for lovers of good mysteries and haters of subtitles.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is an investigative journalist and one of the editors at the independent publication Millennium. His career is threatened when he publishes serious allegations against a powerful businessman that can’t be backed up with evidence. Faced with a costly libel lawsuit, Mikael pauses to consider his options and is approached by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of the reclusive and mysterious Vanger dynasty. Henrik believes that his favorite niece Harriet was murdered 40 years ago when she disappeared and he thinks Mikael can discover what happened to her due to his thorough investigation skills. Mikael takes the job, but quickly discovers that he needs help as the Vanger family is huge and their lives are murky. He enlists the aid of troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and together they travel down a dark path that has them dealing with Nazis, ritualistic killings and an ice-cold murderer.

Like its Swedish counterpart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is brutal. There is graphic rape, mutilation and even animal dismemberment. Scenes of consensual sex are handled just as boldly, and it’s almost as if the filmmakers decided to strip away as much art from the presentation as possible and just offer reality. The decision pays off effectively and audiences will cringe at the horrible things the characters do to each other. Thankfully the shock isn’t a gimmick; it manages to feel organic to the story being told. In fact, the opening credits do a wonderful job preparing audiences for the upcoming disturbing images. Murky figures drenched in black, viscous liquid are beaten and otherwise torn apart by men’s hands that emerge from the surrounding darkness. It’s beautifully unsettling and easily the most inspired aspect of the film.

Classic whodunits seem to be a rarity in film, so The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should be a real treat for fans of mysteries. The cast of characters is appropriately seedy and the location adequately remote. The fact that Harriet’s disappearance happened so long ago aids the classic feel of the story in that modern investigation tools become blunted when dealing with evidence so old. Instead, the heroes must use old fashioned detective work to piece together what happened. While there isn’t quite enough given to audiences to allow formulation of cogent hypotheses on who actually did it before it’s revealed, the mystery is still a fun ride.

The actors all do a fine job – Daniel Craig is strong and amiable; Rooney Mara is aloof and off-balance – but the two heroes seem physically miscast. Craig maintains his James Bond physique, making his whiny behavior after suffering a cut to his head feel disingenuous. Conversely, Mara looks too frail for the kind of rough-and-tumble life she leads. No doubt the actors look good onscreen, but the texture of Hollywood veneer is pervasive, especially when Craig is the only actor with an out-of-place accent.

With the Swedish version having been imported just last year, comparisons are inevitable. Overall, the films are close, but the Swedish version is superior. The presentations are similar, but the original film tells the better story by developing the characters extremely well. At their cores, the stories of both versions are about evil men who brutalize women. The American version focuses more on solving Harriet’s disappearance and Mikael’s subplot, sacrificing Lisbeth’s historical suffering at the hands of similar men that culminates in her moral decision towards the end of the film. It’s difficult not to feel as though the film is relying on audiences to have seen the original in order to fill in the blanks.

Despite not being the best version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this film is supremely enjoyable in its own right. It has a remarkably engaging story and delightful direction and acting that will make its long runtime fly by. It’s also shocking, sad and ugly. Ultimately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the more sobering experiences to be had at the theater.