Thursday, January 5, 2012


If you saw both versions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” side by side, you could spot the differences between the 2009 Swedish original and the 2011 American remake. Nevertheless, the revelations in the other won’t be as surprising. “Fight Club” director David Fincher brings his obsession with serial killers with him to this top-drawer adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller. Fincher scored his first major cinematic success with the Brad Pitt & Morgan Freeman crime mystery “Se7en” (1995) about a cunning serial killer, and he explored similar subject matter in “Zodiac” (2007) a film about the real-life murders in San Francisco which spawned Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” franchise. Considering that the gritty subject matter of Larsson’s novel concerns a man who rapes and then murders women, the pairing of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (**** out of ****) and Fincher seems ideal. Oscar winning “Schindler's List” scenarist Steven Zaillian, who received Oscar nods for “Awakenings” as well as “Gangs of New York,” brings his formidable skills to bear as the sole scribe. Indeed, little is amiss in the Fincher & Zaillian retread, except cat lovers probably won’t appreciate the headless feline that winds up on our hero’s door step. The cat was conspicuous by its absence in the Swedish version. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two films is the casting of Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace registered brilliantly as the eponymous heroine in the original, but newcomer Rooney Mara is no slouch. Mara wears insanity as persuasively as her black, boot-polish Goth make-up and her punk rock coiffures. Any preference you have may boil down to your choice between either Ms. Rapace or Ms. Mara. Each deliver chilling performances, and the Lisbeth Salander character qualifies as a biggest milestone in the depiction of women in film since the female assassin in the 1990 French action yarn “La Femme Nikita.”

Aging Swedish business magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer of “The Sound of Music”) fears that he has few years left. The mysterious disappearance of his niece Harriet is the one thing which has haunted him for 4o years. She vanished without a trace one day at a family reunion. Neither the authorities nor Henrik were ever able to find her. To add insult to injury, Henrik has received a framed picture of a flower annually on each birthday. Harriet gave him the first flower, but lately Henrik suspects that all subsequent flowers since she disappeared have been sent by Harriet’s killer. Henrik feels like he is being ridiculed and he has suffered from this torment long enough. He hires an illustrious Swedish political journalist who writes for the magazine “Millennium.” A reluctant Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig of “Casino Royale”) accepts Vanger’s job offer since he has just lost a highly publicized libel suit against a notorious Swedish billionaire investment banker, Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg of “Exit”), and the court settlement has wiped out his savings.

Henrik commissions Blomkvist to write his memoirs in part because he abhors the corrupt Wennerström. Moreover, he possesses files on Wennerström which will damage the billionaire’s reputation and he promises to give them to Blomkvist after he completes his assignment. What Blomkvist doesn’t know is that Henrik’s attorney, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff of “Octopussy”), has employed Milton Security to conduct a background check on Blomkvist. The individual who does the background check is a 23-year old girl, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara of “Youth in Revolt”), and she leaves no stone unturned in her thorough investigation. Once Henrik hires Blomkvist, he explains that his family is pretty hideous bunch. Two of his brothers joined the Nazi Party in Sweden during World War II. Some don’t talk to each other even though they live in houses on an island linked to the mainland by a single bridge. Furthermore, Henrik suspects that one of them may have murdered poor Harriet. Henrik installs Blomkvist in a nearby cottage and provides him with every shred of evidence that the police relied on during their investigation of Harriet’s disappearance.

Later, things go awry when Henrik suffers a heart attack, and everybody but Frode expects him to die. At the hospital, some of Henrik’s relatives demand that Blomkvist be dismissed, but Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård of “Thor”) convinces the family to allow Blomkvist to complete Henrik’s chronicle. Meantime, Lisbeth encounters her own woes when her guardian suffers a stroke, and the state replaces him. Lisbeth, it seems, has a life filled with tragedy. We learn that she burned her abusive father over eighty per cent of his body because he beat her mother without mercy. Since her assault on her father, Lisbeth has been in trouble and is now a ward of the state. The state transfers Lisbeth over to the villainous Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen of “Soul Assassin”)who shows little sympathy to Lisbeth. He humiliates her with questions about her private life. Basically, they get off on the wrong foot, but Lisbeth manages to bring the evil Bjurman around to her way of thinking as suffering abuse at his hands. These scenes are the reason that "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" carries an R-rating for explicit sexuality.

Eventually, Blomkvist finds the mystery so overwhelming that he asks Frode for an assistant and Frode recommends Lisbeth. Together, they struggle to not only find clues but also to interpret those clues correctly. While Blomkvist interviews the Vanger family, Lisbeth performs the leg work. She turns out to be a genuis with computers, brazenly hacking into anybody's account to obtain information.

If anything differentiates the two films, the casting disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist does. Stockholm born actor Michael Nyqvist appears more believable in the original, but English born actor Daniel Craig holds his own in the remake. Actually, were it not for radical, off-beat character of Lisbeth, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” would amount to little more than a complex European whodunit set in a scenic, snow-swept wonderland. In fact, it is Lisbeth who gives the film its lurid but gripping quality. She assumes a role of greater significance in the Swedish sequels and probably will in the American sequels. She emerges as a female Rambo with a no-nonsense attitude. If she were a cat, she would claw more often than purr. Although “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” clocks in at a lengthy 158 minutes, director David Fincher doesn’t squander a second. He knows the right moment to cut away from one scene to another to heighten suspense. Furthermore, despite the graphic crime scene photos and the misogyny, Fincher is careful enough to never rub our noses in it.

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