Review – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

26 Jan

David Fincher has in the past shown that he is a master of the modern thriller, and his films have often been soaked with tangible atmosphere. Seven was so filthy and grim that I felt as though I would never be clean again. The same goes for Fight Club, where further ambience was added by it being viewed by a protagonist whose mind was frayed by insomnia. The Game played the paranoia card, putting me right in there with Michael Douglas‘ character, having me wonder where the danger is and whether it was real or just, in fact, part of the game. The more subdued Zodiac concerned itself more with the mystery of the murders, constantly egging me on and telling me there was more beneath the surface, a lurking darkness threatening to destroy the lives of the people investigating it from both the outside and from within. Even Fincher’s comparatively weaker thrillers like Panic Room and the disowned Alien 3 had tension to spare.

So what the hell happened?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is cold and unwelcoming, yes. This is fine. These can be useful qualities for the genre. What is lacking is a sense of danger, an air of uncertainty, and a driving force to push the story along and me along with it. There are scenes with bite, but for the most part this is a toothless thriller from a man who used to be all fangs.

Set in Sweden, the story of the film revolves around a mystery: Who killed Harriet? The daughter of wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), she disappeared 40 years ago. Henrik is convinced that someone in his family murdered her. This doesn’t seem far-fetched; the Vangers are essentially a bunch of loners and Nazis, says Henrik. The killer keeps sending him a gift every year on Harriet’s birthday: a simple flower painting. Someone is toying with him.

To figure out the mystery, he enlists journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). Mikael, recently convicted of libel againt a corrupt businessman, is reluctant to accept the job but realizes that he needs the money now that his career is in jeopardy. More importantly, the well-connected Henrik promises him information that would prove his innocence. Mikael isn’t the sole protagonist, though. A young hacker by the name of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) also figures into the story. It takes a while before she encounters Mikael proper in the movie, but she eventually helps him with the investigation. Keeping the two leads apart like this for almost the entire first hour is a smart move, as it allows us to get to know their characters and understand what’s at stake for them as individuals, rather than as a unit.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

A big draw of the story – which has been told before in Stieg Larsson‘s novel and in Niels Arden Oplev‘s Swedish film from 2009 – has always been the character of Lisbeth. Dressed in black with multiple piercings and tattoos, constantly on guard against the world, and with a troubled past. Strong-willed but slight in stature, keeping a lid on her words until she needs to make a point. By having a lesser-known actress like Rooney Mara play the role, it’s easy for us to accept her as a proper person. Regardless, I am not fully wowed by her performance. She plays the bottled-up aspects well enough, managing to be oddly intriguing despite her pricklinees. It’s the scenes where she has to show strength and wrath that I don’t fully buy into. Meanwhile, her co-star Daniel Craig has problems of his own. The character Mikael is a more conventional one, almost an every-man albeit with a sharp and honed intellect. Craig is a fine actor, but one who rarely manages to fully disappear into a role. There are times when he comes off as too strong. Too stoic. Too James Bond. I never get the sense that he’s in danger. If this sounds overly harsh, it’s not by intention. Both performances are overall serviceable.

There are bigger issues I have with the film. One is that the solving of the mystery isn’t handled very coherently. We’re introduced to suspects at a rapid pace. Clues are discovered and delved into rapidly. Mikael and Lisbeth interview old witnesses and police officers, examine newspaper clippings and study bible quotes. Often presented in speedy montages, I found it hard to keep track of the connections, the whos and the whats. When they arrive at a likely culprit, I was wondering how they got there. More importantly, I was questioning whether they knew how they got there. For a film where solving the case is the central focus of the story, this is a serious flaw.

The climax of the film is handled well. However, the film sputters along for a good 20-30 minutes after that. Tying up loose ends of the case is fully acceptable, yes, but there is a lot of stuff going on there that seemingly has more to do with the overarching plot of the trilogy rather than the story of this first film. It’s likely that these parts will feel more warranted as the two sequels arrive, but for now, it makes for an odd sense of pacing towards the end. I was ready for the end credits to roll a good 15 minutes before they did.

Again, I fear this review has come off as too negative-sounding. There are things I like about the film. Most of the supporing performances are good, with Plummer as the stand-out. Here’s Henrik, an old man who recognizes the importance of being hospitable even when under personal stress, who has had a successful career and knows how to get things done. And yet there’s a slight glimmer in his eyes that makes me think he knows more than he lets on, no matter how jovial and open he seems. It’s a strong showing from the veteran actor, making me all the more eager to check out his awards-toted performance in Beginners. Another one who impresses is Yorick van Wageningen, who plays Lisbeth’s newly appointed guardian Per Bjurman. His character is not one of nuances but a complete monster, and it’s imperative that we hate him. The script does half the job for him, but there is no denying the sleaziness he brings to the part. You might say a one-note character requires less effort to play, but that one note needs to be played to its fullest possible effect. van Wageningen holds nothing back.

While I didn’t feel much tension in the film, I can’t fault the score for it. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have crafted a solid soundtrack here, one which at times becomes quite palpable and provides a raw texture to the movie. I’m one of the seemingly few who never noticed their acclaimed work on The Social Network while I watched that film. This certainly didn’t happen here. Another thing I need to give serious props for is the way Fincher and company have captured Sweden. Every design choice, every item in every frame is spot-on, from the candelabras in the windows to the news presentations on TV. Everything looks just as it should, so a bravo is in order.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a terrible movie by any means, but it is a lukewarm one. Had this come from a less accomplished director, it would be understandable. But this is David Fincher, a director who has proved himself to be in possession of great talent and a keen eye. Considering this, the film becomes almost baffling. What was he going for here? Why did he choose such a cold and distant tone for a story wrought with intense violence and evil? Why is the investigation process such a mess when he did it so well and intriguingly in Seven and Zodiac? Why why why indeed.

Score: 2/5

There. That’s my formal review of the movie, where I of course have offered my subjective opinion of it but while doing my best to view it from a fair and unbiased point of view. I have refrained from comparing it to the Swedish movie, because there’s no reason to. This is a readaptation of a book I haven’t read, not a remake of a film I have seen, so it deserves to be judged on it own merits. There is a lot more I have to say, however. It doesn’t suit the tone I want in my reviews, but expect another blog post on it either later today or tomorrow.

UPDATE:  Here it is.


Posted by on 26 January, 2012 in Reviews


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16 responses to “Review – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

  1. Pete

    26 January, 2012 at 15:06

    Wow disappointing. It’s Fincher so I expect and hope to like it more than you did but on the other hand I don’t care that it’s a re-adaptation, it is still an utterly pointless remake to me.

    • Emil

      26 January, 2012 at 15:26

      Yeah, I’ve never seen the need for the film to be made at all, but I’ve been interested in it regardless due to Fincher’s track record with thrillers. This one was a let-down, unfortunately.

  2. Jessica

    26 January, 2012 at 16:19

    I was pretty lukewarm to this one too, even though I was kinder with my grade (gave it a 3). It’s an unnecessary movie and I hope Fincher will use his time and skill and energy for something else in the future. This said: it was quite cool to see Sweden through a Hollywood camera. He’d really got a sense for the details. Well, apart from the accents, which were ridiculous.
    It was fun also to have those shootings going on in Sweden. Quite an event! For that reason it would be nice with a continuation. Not that I expect it really. It appears as if it hasn’t been quite as succesful as they had hoped for, no?

    • Emil

      26 January, 2012 at 16:29

      I definitely agree with you on the accents. Rooney Mara’s in particular was as inaccurate as the trailer had led me to fear. One of the things I hope to go into more in my follow-up post.

      I can’t say I personally noticed much of the shooting, seeing as I live down here in Skåne, but there was certainly a lot of talk about it on Aftonbladet and other news sites. Even more, it seemed, when the film was about to premiere and everyone flew in for a press conference and stuff.

      From what I hear, the sequels have already been green-lit, despite this first movie underperforming at the box office. No word yet on whether Fincher will return to direct them or not. I personally hope he moves on to other projects. There are better things for him to do than to make unnecessary films like these ones.

      • Jessica

        26 January, 2012 at 16:46

        They shot the parade thing in my city! Rebuilt it and everything. It was a bit crazy. We all got into Hollywood fever for a month or so. I even spotted Craig from a window at my office! :)

        • Emil

          26 January, 2012 at 16:49

          That must have been quite the commotion, I’d imagine. :)

  3. Movies - Noir

    26 January, 2012 at 19:01

    Funny thing, we disagree on several points. One thing I do agree with you on though is the ending. It should’ve ended much earlier and unfortunately drags on for a bit too long. But this was a bit of a problem with the original as well, so I blame the book. The movie should’ve ended with the car burning.

    I’m not the biggest fan of Daniel Craig. Ever since he became James Bond, I feel his acting has suffered. But in this one he got it right, he was better than Nyqvist in the original. Rooney Mara took some time to feel comfortable in the role, but I felt she did a good job, and a very good job during the second half of the movie. Probably not as good as Noomi Rapace overall, but still good.

    Yorick van Wageningen wasn’t bad, far from it. But I didn’t feel he was as good in the role as Peter Andersson was in the original. Perhaps this was because I knew what to expect from the character this time around.

    I also didn’t have a problem following the story and it built into a tight little thriller. Of course, I’m not a fan of remakes so there was always going to be a problem with this movie. However, I feel Fincher, even though he doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary on this one, does a good job.

    It’s not close to his best work, but certainly not one of his worst either. I would blame the material more than Fincher on this one actually. And the fact it’s a remake surely was a factor for not having the Fincher grit we’re used to. I gave it 4 out of 5, even though it’s a rather weak four due to the overlong ending. Again, not Fincher’s fault.

    • Emil

      26 January, 2012 at 19:31

      I don’t feel it’s fair to put blame on the source material. If there are problems there, either change things to make it work better, or find a better novel to make a movie from. Plenty of great book-to-screen adaptations have huge liberties with the source material in order to make the movie as good as possible.

      I agree that it’s probably not Fincher’s fault though, as he didn’t write the screenplay. Steve Zaillian did. He is probably the one to blame.

      I didn’t compare this one to the Swedish film since this is a readaptation, not a remake. It deserved to be judged on its own merits. Though I will say that I liked the Swedish film better than this one in most areas, and that Noomi Rapace was leagues above Rooney Mara.

      • Movies - Noir

        26 January, 2012 at 20:10

        The problem is, I don’t really think Fincher wanted to do it. However, I for one am glad that he did because most other director’s wouldn’t have done as good a job as he did.

        I liked the original, I like this one. Neither is perfect, but both are good thrillers that work on most levels. At least that’s my opinion. But I respect your views and it’s always interesting to hear the other side of the coin.

        • Emil

          26 January, 2012 at 21:05

          Then we’ll have to agree to disagree. :)

      • Nathanathan

        28 January, 2012 at 22:03

        Wow, intelligence. I’m glad to see it. Most people have no issue with judging a movie against its source material. I think comparing it to the Swedish film would be interesting however: a film to film comparison is fair. A book to film comparison is not. Two very different mediums trying to accomplish two very different things.

        On a separate note, however, I have to say I’m a little confused by your criticisms of Mara’s performance. You say that “It’s the scenes where she has to show strength and wrath that I don’t fully buy into.” I’m curious in what way you didn’t “fully buy into” that aspect of her. What I found fascinating about the performance was how much Mara conveyed with a character who expresses most things internally. The rape scene is perhaps the only scene in which she OPENLY expresses her emotions (understandably). Other times, anger, annoyance, etc., stay just below the surface. What that leads me to question is not “why is she not giving a better performance,” but “why does the character keep such a distance emotionally, and why does she present herself in such a stoic state?” I felt like Mara was in complete control of her performance; she was actually PERFORMING, not simply going through some motions. It felt like a fully formed character. That especially came across to me when she revealed to Blomkvist that detail of her past, because it’s there that the audience begins to understand why she presents herself as she does, and why her personality is so distancing. Again, the normally volatile emotions one expresses, such as anger, are kept just beneath the surface.

        • Emil

          28 January, 2012 at 22:50

          I enjoy comparing a book to a novel and have done so a few times in the past on this blog ( ) , not necessarily in terms of quality – which is often unfair due to media differences – but more to figure out what was different between the two in terms of story, characters and presentation. What has been changed? Is it strictly to adjust to the change in format, or did the director/screenwriter have different ideas they wanted to explore?

          Comparing two different adaptations can indeed be interesting, including in this case where there is different cultural viewpoints to be considered. Still, for this review, I wanted to focus on this film specifically and try to judge it on its own merits. I knew I preferred the Swedish film, but I wanted to show the flaws I found in this one rather than come off like “It sucks because it’s different from the other one”.

          Rereading the paragraph on Craig and Mara’s performances, and now with a few days hindsight, I can say I’m not happy about what I said. You are correct; when you notice something off about a performance, your first instinct should indeed be to figure out “why is the character acting this way”, and not “why is the actor acting this way”, especially when in a movie involving people you know are capable of good work. I usually do that when writing about actors. For some reason, I forgot to in this text. There are things I would change about that paragraph. Some sentiments still hold true to me, though. That scene where she takes revenge for the rape took me out of the film to an extent. The fact that Mara is an actress shone brighter than the fact that Libseth is a character. “Wow, she’s trying really hard here”, I distinctly recall thinking at the time. It came off as forced to me.

          As I said in the review, Mara’s performance certainly had its good sides, and I should have pointed out some of them. There are parts towards the end of the film where she is absolutely wonderful: the slimmest hint of a smile she offers to Mikael, the quiet and quick resignation when she sees him on the street with his lover… Absolutely spot-on.

          Thank you for the comment, Nathanathan!

          • Nathanathan

            29 January, 2012 at 05:14

            I spent about three hours talking to my girlfriend on the drive home about adapting books to film. It’s a fascinating subject I’ve been doing a lot of research on recently. I think we can definitely learn something by comparing a source novel to its adapted film. The problem, as you rightly point out, is in drawing notions of quality, in which one judges a book (for example) as “better” than the film counterpart. This strikes me as severely problematic for a number of reasons, but I suppose mainly because of the fact that the mediums of literature and film are so inherently different. If you’re more interested in the subject of adaptation, I’d highly recommend James Naremore’s “Film Adaptaion” ( – There’s a Kindle edition available, too. Just $9.99 – VERY worth it).

            And you’re welcome. Maybe I’ll comment more often.

            • Emil

              29 January, 2012 at 09:20

              I might have to check that book out. Thank you for he tip.

              Feel free to comment anytime. Would be fun to have you around!

  4. Nathan

    29 January, 2012 at 05:14

    Also, I did not notice that, but I guess the auto-input spelled my name all messed up. Huh. Sorry about that!


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