The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (***½)

David Fincher takes a well known property and easily makes it his own with the remake (or second book adaptation if you will) of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’.  We all knew that this flick was right up his alley, so it’s no surprise that he knocks it out of the park in terms of direction and style, but all eyes were on his casting decisions, namely that of Rooney Mara in the title role.  Well, let me say it front and center…Fincher picked a winner here.  Mara is, for my money, even better than Noomi Rapace was as Lisbeth Salander.  This is a slightly different interpretation of the character, and a stronger one in my opinion.  For that matter, pretty much everything in this version of the story is better than in the original Swedish one (I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on that part of it).  I wasn’t a fan of that last incarnation by Niels Arden Oplev, but this one is a contender for my Top 10 of 2011 list.  It’s incredible what the right filmmaker can do for a movie.  The story hasn’t changed much (besides the ending, but I’ll get to that in a bit), but it’s just done so much better here.  While this isn’t on the level of ‘The Social Network’ or ‘Fight Club’ in terms of Fincher flicks, this is definitely one of his best directed works.  One can make the case that there are “better” projects for him to be focusing on (something I actually said on my than one occasion during this past year), but he gives this 110% and it shows.  He’s relentless in keeping your interest going and making sure that you’re on the edge of your seat, even if you know what’s about to happen.  In just about every way, Fincher and Mara beat Oplev and Rapace.

Of course the plot is the same by and large, so make of that what you will.  Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has seen his reputation sullied after a successful libel suit against him by a corporate giant he’d been crusading against.  When a legendary businessman named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) calls on Blomkvist with a request to meet him, he takes the old man up on it, if only to get away from all the embarrassment.  What Henrik wants from him though, is far from simply help on his memoirs.  He wants Blomkvist to try and solve the mystery of the murder of Harriet, one of the younger Vangers who died over 40 years ago.  Henrik is convinced that one of his relatives killed her, and it has been driving him mad.  Blomkvist begins to look over the research and investigation notes that have piled up over the years, provided by Henrik and Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), the only member of the family besides Henrik that doesn’t seem insane.  When he thinks he’s found something, he requests a research assistant, so he’s provided with the person who did the background check on him.  It’s Lisbeth Salander (Mara), a damaged young woman who more or less has the whole world against her.  A ward of the state but also a brilliant computer hacker, Salander is an anti-social genius.  After fending off her sleazy case manager (Yorick van Wageningen), she joins Blomkvist to investigate the Vanger family.  What they find is downright horrifying.  As the tagline goes…”what is hidden in the snow comes forth in the thaw”.

Rooney Mara gives one of the most interesting performances of the year as Lisbeth, and I hope the Academy rewards her where they didn’t with Rapace and nominates her for Best Actress.  Mara has a more feminine edge to her interpretation of the character, but she’s perhaps even more of a badass here, making the character quite interesting.  She’s fragile at times, but also driven, in charge of her own sexuality, and not afraid to go where most won’t.  The revenge she takes on her case manager for making her trade sexual favors/rape for her money is a highlight of the movie.  Mara is captivating and has a screen presence you never would have guessed about.  Fincher was on to something when he cast her in ‘The Social Network’.  She’s brilliant here in one of the dozen best performances by anyone this year.  It’s really even better than you’d think possible.  As for Daniel Craig, he’s good in a role that obviously becomes second fiddle as the film rolls on.  His character is a bit of a wuss at times, but it fits, especially when he begins working with Salander during the second act.  My only complaint with him is that his Swedish accent is abandoned early on, while almost everyone else keeps it the whole way through.  In terms of the supporting performances, Yorick van Wageningen does a lot with only a few scenes as the monstrous rapist (it’s even more impressive when you consider how jolly he was in this year’s ‘The Way’), while Christopher Plummer is very solid as the elder statesmen of the Vanger clan.  Stellan Skarsgard is his reliable self, and Robin Wright is as well playing Blomkvist’s co-worker and sometimes sexual partner.  The cast also includes Joely Richardson in an important role, but it’s Mara that you come for…and stay for.

David Fincher does what I thought to be impossible here by somehow taking a poorly paced story originally and making it one of the best paced films of the year.  He’s relentless in the tension and keeps the flick moving at a rapid (some might even claim too rapid) clip.  The film is well over 2 and a half hours, but you don’t feel it in the least.  The only time the movie slows down is during the new ending, which might divide hardcore fans but worked really well for me.  Right from the start, you know you’re in for something interesting with a brilliant title credit sequence scored to the Karen O. and Trent Reznor cover of “Immigrant Song”.  It sets the stage perfectly.  Speaking of the music, Reznor and co-composer Atticus Ross nearly top their magnificent score for ‘The Social Network’ here.  It again tells its own story.  I’d love to see an Original Score nomination come down for it.  Fincher even throws in the song “Sail Away” at just the right moment.  Aside from the music, the cinematography and editing are among the best of the year.  Fincher has crafted something technically perfect in every way.  The only thing holding me back from 4 stars is the script by Steven Zaillian, which doesn’t do quite enough to improve on a mediocre plot.  It’s an improvement, no doubt…but just not enough to keep it from being a pulpy B movie plot at times.  All of his original additions and changes work though, so that’s a plus.

In terms of Oscar, I think Best Picture is iffy, but could happen if the Academy ends up nominating more than 6 or 7 films.  Director would be nice but I think their attention is elsewhere this year.  Look for Best Actress, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score as solid bets, with all the other below the line categories in play too.  I don’t think voters will completely ignore this film (they shouldn’t), but you never know.

‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is a dark studio film that never feels like it’s being designed to appeal to the masses.  It really is “the feel bad movie of Christmas”, as the first teaser proclaimed.  David Fincher deserves a pat on the back for his work here, and Rooney Mara deserves an A-list career.  This is one of the finest films of 2011.  Whether it will crack my top 10 or not remains to be seen, but the fact that this much praise could come from a remake of a film I didn’t much like is a big thumbs up from me.  It may even be one of the best remakes of all time (along with ‘Let Me In’ last year).  In any case, this is a real winner and you all will be quite pleased when you get to see it in a week or so.  It’s not to be missed!

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