Don’t even wanna know how Lisbeth learned to stitch people’s faces back together.

David Fincher is kind of hit or miss with me. I respect the hell out of his skills and at the very least, even his clunkers are well directed and visually arresting. Last year I was blown away by The Social Network and I’m happy to report that Fincher has taken this equally (but differently) bizarre adaptation and made something great out of it. I’ve never read the books nor seen the Swedish films and I’m thankful for that because, though I try to avoid it, exposure to that stuff might have colored my view of this film as I think it has with many critics and casual viewers. As it stands, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a constantly interesting and consistently well-composed set of character studies masquerading as a mystery movie and flirting with neo-noir. I call it a set of character studies because the plot, though a great deal of time is spent on it, seems less important to the overall effect of the film than the development of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as well as the assortment of secondary characters including Martin and Henrik Vanger (Stellan Skarsgaard and Christopher Plummer, respectively) who are the focal points of Mikael and Lisbeth’s investigations into the disappearance of a family member decades prior. As first Mikael alone and then he and Lisbeth together pull at the strings binding the secrets and connections between members of the Vanger family, it’s impossible not to not the complexity of the storytelling architecture involved and the confidence with which it’s explored. This is not a film that feels predictable in terms of the rules of causality normally found in this type of film. For example, the film doesn’t end where you think it’s going to but rather includes an extended denouement that focuses primarily on Lisbeth and where she is as a person by the time everything is said and done. This not only feels appropriate and fair to the character, but it also reveals where the interests of Fincher and his writers (including Stieg Larsson, the writer of the books) truly lay.

Mikael is an interesting guy, but he is in and of a world we can immediately recognize not only because it’s familiar in its realism but also because it’s familiar as a trope. He’s the obsessive journalist who takes it as a point of pride to take on big stories about big figures and come out something of a hero. When we meet him, he’s fucked up and been caught without his facts totally straight which leads to dishonor and financial ruin. This puts him in the perfect position to accept Henrik’s job offer: to outwardly pretend to be working on a biography of him, the patriarch of a rich and elusive family, but actually be working to find out what really happened to Harriet. For the first half of the movie, we spend most of our time with Mikael as he hangs around the Vangers in a particularly cold and remote part of Sweden. Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, we are also shown everything we need to know about Lisbeth to understand who she is and why she does what she does later on, when their paths cross directly.

People have called Lisbeth and, by extension Mara’s performance, “alien” which is something I find ignorant at best and borderline offensive at worst. She’s transgressive, completely outsider, but not alien, and calling her that diminishes her while also putting her in a category that’s simply too far outside.

Good as Craig is, and he’s really as watchable as ever here, this is Rooney Mara’s movie. The lengths of transformation she undergoes in this film are already being marginalized compared to, say, the stuff that guys like Christian Bale or Daniel Day Lewis get so much credit for. The upshot is, it isn’t even just the actress transforming into Lisbeth that is so striking but how Lisbeth herself transforms, both consciously and unconsciously, deliberately and incidentally. Mara’s mastery of everything that is this character and her world, which is the shadowy place on the outskirts of the one Blomkvist lives in, sells this film so fucking hard that I care not at all that it’s a Hollywood remake of an allegedly fine Swedish film. These were just the right people to make it, and they got the right people in the roles. That matters more than anything else but I digress; I plan to talk about Lisbeth a great deal in this review.

Lisbeth’s “story” during the first half of the film is very much about how hard she has it. Due to her personality and proclivities, she is marginalized by society and considered an invalid who has to beg for access to her own money, money which she earns in quantity through her skills as an information technology-based investigator. There’s something Matrix-y about Lisbeth and the world she inhabits. The tech, the sketchy hacker types, and her dark exterior. This isn’t played for cool, though I’m sure there’s a segment of the audience who will take it as for that, which makes it very unlike the way The Matrix fetishized it’s sort of post-gothic, sex-and-latex chic. Lisbeth’s clothing, tattoos, piercings, and everything else are calculated to put people off because she doesn’t trust or like them much and they seldom give her any reason to feel different. It might be the plumage of a wounded creature completely, if not for the ferocity and ruthlessness that she can bring to bear to protect herself from the world and its predators. That quality makes her personal style like the warning colors of a poisonous lizard, very much in keeping with the dragon imagery she seems to identify with. The mistake is taking Lisbeth for her signifiers: she is the dragon, not the tattoo… she’s a total force of nature.

And, it turns out, of feminist retribution and of transgressive personhood. It’s a lot and many audiences will not be comfortable with her as a character unless they can contain her in the recognizable labels of anti-hero or, apparently, alien. Some have even mentioned the character’s probably Asperger’s in a way that is nothing short of dismissal of a figure that they misunderstand and are probably a bit afraid of. Fuck though, they should be. Lisbeth is frightening. But even so, she is recognizable and accessible to us even if her actions and behavior are extreme. The film gives us this character in her purity, doing nothing to soften her or make her more sympathetic but leaving it entirely to us. It’s a commentary in itself that people will likely find Lisbeth most agreeable when she’s cracking wise or wreaking ferocious revenge on her tormentors. She is darkly funny and reminds me quite a bit of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, a similarly singular personality fraught with eccentricity and that same calculated wit.

There’s something largely sexless about Lisbeth, which forces us to examine our assumptions and comfort level with her particular sexuality and gender mode.

It’s rare for the female lead in a mystery movie to be such a departure from the normal standard. You might expect a “tough chick” archetype of some sort and that is certainly part of who Lisbeth is too. But she’s also queer and seemingly disinterested in labeling her sexuality or gender to any comfortable standard for others. She’s aggressive and uncompromising but also surprisingly fragile and earnest and all of this is present in the movie in all its complexity. That alone makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a necessary film (even if it is a remake). You just don’t see this kind of unabashed, undiluted portrayal of someone who simply doesn’t fit into the normative standards we typically apply or are regurgitated to us by our entertainment media.

When she does link up with Mikael, the scene where he confronts her tells us everything we need to know about to accept what happens between them later. Mikael, perhaps uniquely, treats Lisbeth as a person. He doesn’t comment on her otherness but values her skills and comes to value her company and personality as much or more. You can see why she’d respond to that and their chemistry offsets the fact that Lisbeth being Lisbeth is a real highlight of the movie. You don’t mind it being secondary for a while, as her involvement begins the ramping-up of the central mystery which turns out to involve more than one missing girl.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

Inasmuch as her edginess and sense of style are intentionally off-putting, they obfuscate but don’t entirely remove a vulnerability that is magnetic. Mara’s eyes, wide open and often ice cold are her primary weapon in the film.

You have to like Mikael and Lisbeth together as a team and as friends and lovers or the second half of the film doesn’t work. The juxtaposition between an extreme person like her and someone a bit more immediately identifiable is crucial, though, and helps to make this film more than just the arithmetic of its plot. This is why it has to continue past the demise of the villain, something that is handled incredibly well and reveals a pattern in the film. I’ve read a few reveals now that are perplexed by that Lisbeth doesn’t actually kill Martin or that Martin simply talks to Blomkvist a bunch, never really able to act on the menace that Skarsgaard so effortlessly infuses in the character. I think Fincher (and the writers) are playing with audience expectations here, a complimentary element to how the inclusion of Lisbeth overtly does just that but less on a film narrative level.

It’s understandable why an audience, especially a well-versed one, will feel a sense of dread when the Enya song begins. The more canny will think back to a similar scene in Reservoir Dogs and perhaps how Tarantino pioneered a technique of juxtaposing extreme violence with tonally contradictory music (something that you see a lot in movies, especially thrillers and horror films). That Martin never gets to torture Blomkvist defies the expectation that the preceding moments might give us. Fincher is up to something else here, saying something about the banality of evil maybe. Martin sounds a lot like other overly-talkative, self-possessed madmen we’ve seen plenty of. He’s shades of John Doe or the kinds of people Dexter Morgan offs on an episodic basis. Or there’s that the film is, in general, less interested in violence perpetrated against men than it is in violence perpetrated against women. If anyone’s missing that Larsson was very interested in telling a story that confronted that issue, they aren’t paying enough attention.

Plummer brings all his effortless dignity to the film.

Phew, that is a lot to write about one character in a film. It’s obviously the stuff I found most compelling about the film. As a critic, though, it is also the best case for why this film is out-and-out good and not on a subjective level, either. Other people are going to seize on other things but my particular take on it should be enough for anyone to find an appreciation for this film. I can see that it could be hard to like, exactly, given its brutality and grit and how that kind of thing just turns some people off. I hope a lot of people see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’d be nice to live in a world that is more comfortable with its Lisbeths than ours is and having heroes carved from a new type of wood can do nothing but help.

Anyways, it bears mentioning that the film is gorgeously shot and composed. That shouldn’t surprise anyone whose ever seen a Fincher movie and knows how to spot the craftsmanship of a great shot or well-orchestrated scene. There’s also the soundtrack, where again Fincher worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails as well as Atticus Ross, the two guys who won all kinds of acclaim for their work on The Social Network last year. Even though the score is noticeably good, the stand-out track is the Karen O and Trent Reznor cover of The Immigrant Song that was heavily featured in the trailer. That song is just phenomenal and perfectly accompanies the virtuoso credits sequence that opens the film. The credits sequence is another highlight and the best this year not only because it’s stunning visually or because the song is so good, but also because it is as dark and dangerous and uncomfortable as this film can be or as Lisbeth can be. It sets the stage, in other words, feeding into the overall texture of who Lisbeth is and doing it in its own very specific, very definitive way. A way that is also unlike how a film gets a character across via writing, performance, and the workings of the plot. I think I heard somebody compare it to a James Bond title sequence and it is like that, like the fucked up evil version that doesn’t gloss when it can stark.

Just like this film.

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