In the blood-soaked hands of the hair-raising, always surprising director David Fincher, the creepy remake of Sweden’s grisly thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is dreary and confusing but technically superb—a darkly photographed and superbly acted film. It is not my cup of bitter tea laced with arsenic, but I admire its tenacity in keeping the viewer dazzled, while the toxic effect of its violence, sometimes unwatchable, left me charged.
I hated the 2009 Swedish film version, my dashed attempt to read the book (the first volume in the crime trilogy by late, overrated Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson) put me to sleep faster than a double-dose of Dalmane, and I still don’t understand why it has been recycled in an estimated $100 million remake as unnecessary as it is unoriginal. It is also impossibly long-winded. When it ended, after just under a whopping three hours, I ended up impressed, in spite of my reservations. If I found it even half as incomprehensible as it is, I might have liked it twice as much. Oh my god, that plot. After being investigated for making licentious mistakes in fact-checking a magazine profile that causes a scandal, the controversial, complicated and egotistical journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses his job, apartment, moral compass and most of his sanity. Then he spends the rest of this interminable, head-scratching thriller trying not to lose his life and everything below his gym-ready waistline and above his walnut-cracking thighs in one scene of nasty brutality after another. He’s crafty, but he’s also a two-fisted fool for getting recruited by Swedish industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (a wasted Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet, who disappeared 40 years ago from a family reunion on a sinister island with an unpronounceable name on the coast of Sweden. The case was never solved, but Henrik believes she was murdered by a member of his own dysfunctional family.
Here the brain-twisting plot begins to get delusional. As the reporter begins to unravel multiplying clues, he tracks down and hires Lisbeth Salander (newcomer Rooney Mara), a chain-smoking, motorcycle-riding Goth lesbian computer-hacker shrouded in black leather whose invasion of his hard drive revealed the errors that tanked his career. This zombie is a real creep workout, replete with body piercings, a dragon tattoo that encircles her body and more rings around her eyes than a rabid raccoon.
Sharing a deserted cottage by the sea in a gray, frozen Swedish winter, the reporter and his freaked-out researcher, equipped with his-and-her laptops, dig up newspaper reports from the year Harriet disappeared, connecting an entire series of homicides, and before you can yell “Holy Whitechapel Ripper!” the Vangers turn out to be a whole family of serial killers! Then, under pressure, they end up in bed in a savage sexual fury—an unconvincing twist, since Lisbeth has endured a lifetime of rape and sexual torture and despises men.
I’m a big fan of the kind of sleaze and terror Fincher is famous for (think Seven and Fight Club) and this is no exception. The fact that the great screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s elaborate, convoluted script, so muddled that even after it’s over you still don’t know what it’s all about, is a drawback—but the movie is a master class in sinister style, tense and deeply uncomfortable. The cold Swedish dreamscape of blackness is so effective that sometimes you feel like you need a flashlight.
Fincher also knows how to bring out the fearlessness in actors. As James Bond, Craig is a terrific mixture of sarcastic charm and sartorial splendor, in or out of the sack, but when the role calls for something darker, he’s equally well equipped. Stellan Skarsgård, as a member of the Vanger family, is especially scary because of the sheer exploitation of power with which he manipulates people under the guise of polite, amiable calm. Mara is a damaged ferret, her eyes darting, her tongue rubbing her stapled lips as she helps the mentally distraught reporter try to make sense of a deepening mystery. It all adds up to a noxious brew of teeth-grinding, knuckle-whitening brutality.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (R) ★★☆☆☆