MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland

Mini-Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Spoilery

It took me a long time to get to a second screening of this film, but I felt it was needed for me… and it was.

The basic problem I have with this version of the story is that it tries to add more nuance than the story from the book can comfortably absorb.

I haven’t read the book, but I did see the earlier filmed version of the material, and that and this film both point pretty clearly to this being a pot boiler of high style and fairly simple ideas. One reason that I think Noomi Rapace’s version of the title character was so intensely embraced was that she didn’t flinch much. She remained a puzzle. And the filmmaker didn’t try to crack the code. Here, Steve Zaillian, adapting the book, is trying to bring us closer. But it’s almost as though for that to work, Fincher had to put his harshness petal to the metal… and that didn’t really happen. Perhaps the single most disturbing image of the film is the murder of a cat, which has been chopped up in some very specific ways.


For instance… I didn’t feel much of a parallel between Mikael being strung up for murder and Lisbeth being tied to the bed for anal rape when watching the first movie. I felt much more intensity from both acts in watching the Niels Arden Oplev version. There are multiple reasons for this, I think, The others I will get into outside of this Spoiler. But one is that Fincher’s visual style now makes the two events more strikingly similar and yet, more sterile. What is the meaning of the reflective events? In one case, Lisbeth has no help on the way and her only option is revenge. In the other, Mikael is saved by Lisbeth. In the former case, Lisbeth doesn’t expect to die. In the latter, Mikael should.

It seems to me that the screenwriter and director of the newer film understood intuitively that there was a connection between these two events. My problem is that after seeing it twice, I don’t know, emotionally, what that connection is.

Another problem for me in this version was Daniel Craig. His performance is excellent. But he’s Daniel Craig and we never forget it. Besides the fact that his Mikael is a much more dominant character in this version of the material, he is also a movie star. And when his life is threatened, I am not fearful, in terms of storytelling, that he is really in harm’s way. And there is a moment in which we are really meant to feel like he could die. I didn’t. Not for a second.

Likewise, Rooney Mara is a very interesting canvas for Fincher. But naked Rooney Mara becomes more like a Playboy photo spread than a connected experience of a character. I’m not sure how that could have been better. Perhaps hiring an unknown who was really unknown. But I have to say, I know Noomi Rapace was very physically exposed in her performance, but lovely as she is, I don’t remember specific shots of her nudity from that film. In this one, I remember very distinctly feeling like Fincher was cutting within a few frames of labia or somewhat fetishizing Mara’s nudity.

For me, one key moment is when Lisbeth is anally raped. We never see her face clearly. To me, watching Rooney Mara’s lovely lithe ass flipping about in the air and she grunts through a gagged mouth is like soft-core kink. Her pain, methinks, would be shown in her eyes. Is she resolved to get through it? Does she really think she can break free (another reflection of what is to come with Mikael being strung up to die)? Has this happened before and is it putting her in an place we, as an audience, have never seen her before? To me, a violation like that is defined, dramatically, by the person’s reaction. The terror of someone about to be shot and thrown in a mass grave is far greater than seeing a corpse thrown in a mass grave. The death part is the same. But only the living can be terrified.

I find Ms. Mara’s performance very hard to judge. The script and direction give us a lot of glimpses past Lisbeth’s hardness. But while I found myself wanting to scream at the writer who suggested that Lisbeth, in this film, is a victim of Hollywood’s sense of movie patriarchy, I saw pretty clearly why this writer was upset when I saw the film a second time around. Lisbeth’s sexuality in this film is all over the place and quickly flips from rape victim to lesbian to sex toy to a middle-aged man, the last of which never quite fits.

I don’t know what Zaillian and Fincher think her sexual motives with the Mikael character are here. But they aren’t clear. This isn’t a “I take what I want” girl, no matter what she says. Even when she takes home a woman for, presumably, pleasurable sex, she seems to have gone out looking for a comfort fuck, not anything remotely fun or intimate. She specifically notes that Mikael doesn’t perform cunnilingus on his girlfriend enough… but instead of training him to make her come, she rides him – without him making any kind of move on her – like a fairly traditional male fantasy of “if you harden it, she will come.”

Thing is, I don’t think that Lisbeth yearning for something that Mikael might give her is ridiculous. But it’s not really in the movie. The Swedish movie is boiler plate. Lisbeth is kind of a caricature. But here, made more human, she doesn’t have enough depth to feel completely real. How much of that is Mara Rooney and how much of that is the intent of the filmmakers? The attempt seems to be Edward Scissorhands as Lisbeth Salander. But unlike Edward, Lisbeth can remove her sharp edges. And she does. And it never quite feels right or fulfilled. It’s not that it couldn’t have been. It’s not that the filmmakers aren’t completely capable of doing amazing things. It is, I think, that they are stuck with the book and the end that would have felt right, I think here, is where she goes in the second book… where, I am told, she goes off to heal. Instead, this film stops with her in a kind of Han Solo stasis… which is not dramatically satisfying, especially after we have felt her changing so much. There is a reason why Han is “frozen” after the second film and not at the end of the first. You can’t cliffhanger like that if you don’t know whether you have fully captured the heart of the audience.

The other thing is, we know, as an audience, that Mikael isn’t a man who could make her happy. He is too weak. He’s cool and smart and principled. But not unlike James Bond, he’s somewhat unknowable and he and we like it like that. If she is ever going to be fully honest with a man or woman, she needs someone who can be the same in return. So we don’t have a big investment in a relationship potentially blooming either. And again, as long as everyone is a cipher and this is a murder mystery with some cool characters, that’s fine. When you ramp it up with Fincher and Zaillian, all of a sudden, it’s all out of alignment.

So I guess that’s my review in a nutshell. Beautifully made. Acting is strong across the board. But making pulp into something more real is very, very hard. It’s a magic trick, not a straight-forward skill. And failure, even by the best, at achieving that, is more likely than not.

I don’t think TGWTDG is a failure. I still think it works as an entertainment. But I wanted more than I had gotten from the very compelling, but very TV film by Niels Arden Oplev. And I got a little less.

Be Sociable, Share!

15 Responses to “Mini-Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Spoilery”

  1. Paul D/Stella says:

    After I saw it I too wondered why she aggressively comes on to him after being raped. I can’t imagine what her mindset must be like after something like that. Is she just looking to assert control, to be the aggressor, with someone she is sexually attracted to? I like the character and the performance. I found her fascinating and very sympathetic. My problems are with the mystery elements and the way those play out. I found that to be far more unsatisfying than Lisbeth and her sexuality.

  2. David Poland says:

    Well, that’s another problem… is it peanut butter or chocolate. The two lead characters kind of overwhelm the rather basic mystery story in this case.

  3. CMed1 says:

    She jumps all over Mikael because he’s the first man that she’s met whom she can really trust.

  4. Daniel says:

    Dear David,

    You are aggressively stupid.


  5. Meghan says:

    Dear David,
    I agree with Daniel.
    How can you question Lisbeth’s aggressive behavior towards Mikael without reading the book?
    That scene is exactly how it was in the book.
    How can you judge either movie without reading the book? The Swedish versions were okay… but they strayed from the books. The American version stayed true to the story Larsson presented us, and I believe Rooney is an excellent Lisbeth.
    I just think its ridiculous that you feel you can compare versions of the film with one another when you should be comparing them to the original source-the novel, and the American version did not disappoint in my opinion.

  6. Bennett says:

    The mikael and lisbeth sexual relation was just as abrupt in the movie as it was in the book. It didn’t work in either. I have not read the other two books, want to just haven’t found the time. But I feel that a sexual relationship between the two would have been better if it had been saved for a later book.

    In addition, when I was reading the book I got a father daughter vibe, so when they did suddenly sleep together I got a big ewwwwwww factor. Yuck.

    But I did like the movie. I wonder if non readers would be confused. The dissappointing box office is not a surprise. It is a tough sell.

  7. LYT says:

    Did you seriously just write “Hans Solo” twice?

  8. yancyskancy says:

    Meghan: I haven’t seen either version of the film or read the book (nor have I read Dave’s “spoilery” review, but if reading the book is necessary to understanding and enjoying the film, there’s a problem.

  9. lazarus says:

    LYT: at first I thought DP was making some kind of Scandanavian joke by using “Hans” instead of “Han”. But then he did it again and now I’m not sure.

    The people trying to defend this film saying that certain scenes were in Larsson’s book: who gives a shit? Isn’t DP’s point about elevating pulp material into something greater? Like Coppola did with Puzo?

  10. David Poland says:

    CMed1… yes, I thought about that. But it requires me, as a viewer, to project. And can she really trust him? Does she really trust him?

    As for the “Stupid!” callers… I agree with yancy. I wasn’t reviewing the book. I was reviewing the movie. And I offered the context I did have… of the other movie.

    “That scene is exactly how it was in the book” suggests that it fit YOUR imagination of the scene in the book. And that’s fine. But art is interpretation… whether from books or from earlier movies or whatever. Maybe I would feel somewhat different if I hadn’t seen the earlier film and maybe you’d feel different if you hadn’t read the book. I don’t know.

    But thanks for playing.

    PS. Yes, Luke… I screwed up. I will turn in my “I Heart Jabba” t-shirt immediately.

  11. anghus says:

    I loathe people who try to explain cinematic miscues with “it was in the book.”

    Movies shouldn’t require cliff notes. If the movie does everything that the book does faithfully then all you’re doing is creating a highlight reel for the people who already know the story.

    They call it source material for a reason.

  12. Rob says:

    For me, Lisbeth coming onto Blomkvist works in the American version but not the Swedish version for one reason: Daniel Craig is fucking hot, Michael Nyqvist kind of isn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

    Overall, I felt like Lisbeth was less of a male fantasy caricature in this version.

  13. Geoff says:

    Saw this yesterday and LOVED it – I was blown away, very pleasantly surprised. I read the book and saw the Swedish cinematic version and bottom line, this was a softball thrown to Fincher that he just hits out of the park.


    The actors are all impressive – Mara was fantastic, fully inhabited the character and even though I really dug Rapace’s performance, this felt more like a real character with real emotions. The bigger suprise was Craig, especially that climax in the Skaarsgaard’s secret room…

    Casino Royale is one of the best action movies of recent years, every knows that Craig was fantastic doing Bond – highlight scene for him was when he’s getting tortured and is positively defiant about it. In that context, he was even more convincing convincing being freaked out by Skaarsgaard in that climax – Orinoco Flow, what a great choice, too!

    The movie just flew – yeah, some of the last 15 minutes felt a little tacked on and some of the latter plot twists and turns stretch a bit:

    Come on, Martin would take Blomkist down to his secret room that he has been raping and murdering victims for decades and he leaves EVERY fucking door open?! Yeah, it kind of happens that way in the book from what I remember, but it would have added a world of credibility if maybe Lisbeth had to hack through the codes for one door.

    The score was fantastic – Rezor and Ross helped Fincher deliver something that I thought was pretty impossible for this story, considering the subject matter: warmth. Seriously, this is why Fincher was the guy to pull this off. After Seven and Zodiac, he has done this type of content with all the requisite creepiness and coldness. Most other directors (looking at you, Ratner – though not fair to put Fincher in even the same ballpark as him) would have dwelled on the details and sensationalized them with bombastic music notes and close-ups of retinas, whatever……Fincher is comfortable enough with the material that he shows just enough without wallowing in it. That first rape scene – not to say I enjoyed it, but what a brilliant stroke replacing most of the score with a carpet cleaner in the background. Gave it just the right amount of dread, without going over-the-top.

    Really, I was genuinely surprised by how much warmth Fincher brought to this movie – it had a lot more than Benjamin Button, for sure. Not just the two main characters, but Plummer, Wright Plenn, Joely Richardson – how many movies of this type can you think of when you actually LIKE so many of the characters?

    Dug the little shout-out to NIN, hard not to chuckle at that. The photography was gorgeous, opening credit sequence REALLY rang of Bond (especially when you see Craig’s face morphing into other images) but still works, and the accents were just convincing enough to not distract.

    One of the best films of the year, no doubt. David talked about this a few months ago as having the potential to pull off what Coppola did with Puzo’s original Godfather novel, which was pulp as most forget. Not quite that level, but still a prime example of a master filmmaker elevating solid source material into a fantastic movie. I would compare this with what Sydney Pollack pulled off with The Firm – gave a cliched story written in paint-by-numbers prose and classed it the fuck up with a slambang cast and attention to detail in the writing and presentation that makes it really crackle.

    (All the talk about Cruise on these blogs lately, how come no one mentions that one? I would put it among his top three films!)

  14. Minor quibble – Brett Ratner did make a serial killer thriller, RED DRAGON, where he in fact made a point not to dwell on the gore and/or carnage while keeping much of the violence offscreen. I get your point, but you picked a poor example.

  15. Geoff says:

    Actually, Scott – I WAS thinking about the piss-poor job that Ratner did with Red Dragon. Whether he wallowed in the gore, he completely over-dramatized the violence – think of the overblown music cues in that movie and how it compares to the Michael Mann version from a suspense standpoint.

The Hot Blog

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon