The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo review

David Fincher's English-language movie of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo might just be the most un-Hollywood American thriller in years. Here's our review...

The woman who brought a lawsuit against the US distributors of the movie Drive, over what she claimed (with some justification) was its misleading promotion, can have no such qualms with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Championed as ‘the feel bad film for Christmas’, and with promotional materials that accurately reflect that, this is a dark, unsettling adaptation of Steig Larsson’s novel.

It’s also what happens when you let grown ups make films.

Adapted by Steven Zaillian and directed by David Fincher, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the kind of thriller that mainstream Hollywood simply doesn’t make. Yet, backed by the confidence that comes with bringing books bought by 65 million people (and counting) to the big screen, Sony appears to have not only recruited compelling film makers, it’s also let them do their job.

The result runs to over two and a half hours, and thoroughly, thoroughly earns its 18 certificate (there’s not a sniff of PG-13/12A here). It’s impossible to remember an expensive Christmas blockbuster quite like it in that regard.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo barely feels like a Hollywood thriller. And that’s for two reasons.

First, Fincher filmed large chunks of the movie on location in Sweden, and there’s a bleakness and palette that’s informed by the film’s Scandinavian locale as a result. It looks and feels frosty, in no small way thanks to just how exquisitely the movie is shot at times.

Secondly, there’s no Hollywood gloss here. The film is relentless in its uncomfortable tone, not flinching from subject matter that’s often horrific to watch. The camera never blinks, even when much of the audience is tempted to do so. Even the many who know what’s coming (and there are no story spoilers here) will struggle with how dark and nasty things get, but the film remains committed to showing it.

But it’s not dark and nasty for the sake of it. Furthermore, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is sporadically mesmerising cinema, edited astonishingly well, and at its peak, it feels that barely a frame is wasted. Fincher’s pace, and more importantly his control of it, remains – until the last 20 minutes or so – quite brilliant. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music only adds to the unnerving feel.

It’s a cold film, certainly, bearing a similarity to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in that regard. But where it differs from that movie is that there’s a slightly easier way into the story for the audience. And it comes in the shape of Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist.

Appreciating that it’s Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander that’s going to – with some justification – get the lion’s share of the acting plaudits (and we’ll come to her in a minute), it’s Craig’s understated turn that holds the film together.

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This isn’t action-man, 007 Daniel Craig. Instead, this is the first class actor that earned the James Bond gig in the first place (think back to films such as The Mother) His portrayal of Blomkvist – a man not short of shades of grey – is one of his quietest, most controlled, and effective pieces of work.

Rooney Mara, though, is a revelation.

Most known to this point for the opening few minutes of Fincher’s The Social Network, Mara is terrific. Appreciating that it’s rare to find such an unusual, well-written and compelling female role in the first place, Mara doesn’t let the chance pass. An Oscar nomination is the bare minimum that’s heading her way.

Unrecognisable from her last film, she utterly owns the skin of Salander, putting together an unlikely hero to root for, whilst clearly harbouring the mental scars that she’s picked up along the way. It’s bold, risky acting, way out of most actresses’ comfort zone (and, consequently, the audience’s), and between her and Craig (the pair convincingly selling a leading pair who seemingly have very little in common), it’s hard to tear your eyes off the screen.

The irony, that said, is that beneath those performances (as well as excellent supporting turns from the likes of Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer) is actually a fairly conventional thriller, and even if you’re not familiar with the source material (confession: I wasn’t), it’s pretty straightforward after a while to put the pieces together. In fact, I’ll go further: the overriding mystery isn’t massively interesting, which explains why Fincher’s film, wisely, focuses more often on the manner of the investigation rather than the content of it.

Certainly, the members of the audience just along for a whodunnit are the ones who’ll get the least out of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And that’s appreciating that you’ll have to search hard to find a film that makes flicking through pictures on an Apple Mac look as exciting as it does here. 

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In fact, that’s one of the further strengths of the picture: the moments on paper that seem the most mundane are the ones that prove far more compelling that an action sequence in any number of Hollywood thrillers.

Still, it does eventually start to drag on a little, and that running time begins to be felt around 15 minutes from the end. It’s the only point where it all lags slightly. It’s worth noting, too, that both the narrative and approach of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are going to be understandably alienating for some.

However, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo should be commended and appreciated for what it is. It’s a mature, meticulous piece of work, better at character study than outright thrills, and a further quality film from one of America’s most compelling film makers. It’s not David Fincher’s best movie, but it feels like the best, most unsettling Hollywood thriller in a long, long time.

They weren’t kidding about it being a feel bad movie, either…

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4 out of 5