The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
You can't see the dragon tattoo in this picture of Rooney Mara, but trust me, it's there.

I write this review as a fan. I loved Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While by no means perfect, I found it to be a riveting mystery, full of such dark edginess that I couldn't put it down. I also liked the original Swedish film adaptation, which starred Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. When I found out David Fincher was going to make the American version, it seemed like the perfect match of director and material. Then they announced that Daniel Craig would star. Again, an absolutely perfect match. I guess you could say I had a lot invested in the movie. I wanted it to be a solid encapsulation of everything I dig about Larsson's tale. And it is.

Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced Swedish journalist who is offered a shot at redemption when an elderly businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), hires him to explore the mystery of his niece Harriet, who disappeared forty years ago and is presumed to have been murdered. The circumstances of her disappearance are puzzling. The Vangers live on an island that, due to an accident, was closed off the day the girl went missing. Of course, there are plenty of suspects; the family is full of people with nasty secrets who hate one another. The case becomes so dense that Blomkvist needs a research assistant. He ends up getting Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an anti-social punk computer hacker. Lisbeth is a ward of the state whose guardian is sexually abusing her. She likes the idea of finding what Blomkvist calls “a killer of women.” Together they assemble the pieces, eventually finding that the Vanger family closet has more skeletons than a graveyard.

There were two things I loved about the novel. One was that Larsson took the time to create lives for his characters. There were plenty of sections designed to allow us to become acquainted with Blomkvist and Salander outside of the main plot. The other was that the story had a strong empathy for victims. While undeniably – and sometimes unpleasantly - graphic, the sequences of abuse were there to show us just how awful it is to be forcibly stripped of one's power by another. Larsson clearly rooted for victims and advocated fighting back against abusers. Both of these elements solidly make the transition to the film.

Without sacrificing those things, the screenplay by Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Moneyball) nicely streamlines a complicated plot with many supporting characters. Zaillian even manages to improve upon a couple of things, most notably in the ending, which differs slightly from the novel's. For his part, Fincher – as he always does – finds the exact right style to emphasize the story's darkness. From the dazzling opening credits sequence to the eerie revelation of what happened in the Vanger family, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo generates a continual sense of unease and danger. Oftentimes when I see the film adaptation of a book I enjoyed, I either notice all the things they changed and/or got wrong, or I feel not fully engaged, since I already know where the story is heading. That didn't happen this time because the skill of the writing and direction made it all fresh.

The original Swedish title of Larsson's book was “Men Who Hate Women.” It is the theme on which his whole Millennium Trilogy is based. Some critics have accused the late author of misogyny, saying that the books spent perhaps a bit too much time detailing rapes and murders. I don't agree with that - Larsson was a feminist who, according to those who knew him, abhorred violence against women - but I can understand where some might see things that way. It's all in how you read it. The movie is different because of the undeniable humanity brought by the actors. Rooney Mara (The Social Network) makes Lisbeth a sympathetic character. She may be pierced and tattooed and surly, but she also understands what it's like to be victimized, and that motivates her to bring Harriet's killer to justice. (If you've read the book, you know how she deals with her own abuser.) Mara gives a star-making turn, going so deep into character that you'll forget you're watching a performance. Daniel Craig is equally good, exuding the “righteous crusader” mentality that defines Blomkvist. Craig possesses a sense of moral tenaciousness that makes him an ideal choice for the role.

It's sometimes hard to say why we respond to certain works above others. Despite being a bit long and slow to start, I think I responded to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I've known women who have been victimized. I've heard their stories. The book wasn't afraid to show the ugly reality of such crimes. At the same time, it presented two characters who are horrified by what they discover and work diligently to prevent it from happening again, to make the guilty party pay. That's a hopeful idea at the center of an intensely dark tale. I love David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it brings the ideas of the book to life in a way that is smart, stylish, and suspenseful. It makes the quest for justice cinematic, while giving off a haunting vibe that envelops you. The film is also masterful at the acting and performance levels. Just as I couldn't stop turning the pages of Larsson's novel, I couldn't take my eyes off Fincher's movie.

( out of four)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes.

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