Stieg Larsson never saw his trilogy of novels and the success they've had unfortunately. Originally published in Swedish, the 'Girl' trilogy has become a worldwide hit, and has even been turned into a Swedish movie trilogy, and hopefully an American one. For now though, we start with the series opener, 2011's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Having been found guilty of libel, Swedish business journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is at a bit of a career crossroad. An opportunity presents itself when aging businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) approaches him with a proposition. Henrik would like Mikael to write his biography, but that's really just a cover. He wants Mikael to investigate the 40-plus year mystery of the disappearance and possible death of his great-niece that's gone unsolved all these years. There's a twist to Henrik's offer, but the damaged journalist agrees to help. At the same time, an anti-social and uniquely odd investigator, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), is investigating her own case, one that will eventually hit a crossroad with that of Mikael's.
I'll get this out of the way early for fans of the book, the first of Larsson's trilogy. I read the book, loved it, and went into the American film with high expectations. They were very much met. Fans of the book will no doubt enjoy the movie. The transition from novel to film must have been a daunting one, but for the most part, all the changes that were made work out. Unnecessary supporting characters have been dropped. Some subplots among characters has been cut too. The only significant change comes in the finale, but for the sake of the movie it works in a more stream-lined fashion. Moral of the story is simple. In a time when so many adaptations struggle to channel a source novel's power and enjoyment, this one very much lives up to expectations. Now, onto the movie.
From accomplished director David Fincher, 'Dragon' is a true movie. With movies like Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, and The Social Network to his name, Fincher doesn't attach himself to just any movie. He doesn't just tell stories, he tries to make his films viewing experiences. In a story focusing on sexual/physical violence against women, corruption in business, cowardice in journalism, and a general disgust with human beings, that's quite a task. Filmed in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, the visual look is dark and muted, especially gloomy in reflecting the darkness of the story. Fincher's ability with a camera is impressive; quick cuts without being frenetic in its movement. The soundtrack from Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a gem, even getting an Oscar nomination. It's acoustic and loopy, almost an updated sound of a Vangelis or Tangerine Dream in an electronic way. Lots of style points, and all for the better.
Heading into my reading of the book, I knew who would play certain characters which isn't always a good thing, but it works here. Showing again that he's not just James Bond, Craig is an ideal choice to play beaten down but crusading journalist Mikael. He really makes the character come alive. It's the little touches. He's confident but not cocky, just aware of his abilities. When interviewing or investigating, his glasses hang from one ear, rocking below his chin. Questioning at first, Mikael too becomes obsessed with the case. Casting Mara as Lisbeth took some heat (and some changes from the book have been made), but the then-25 year old actress does a phenomenal job. I didn't always like Lisbeth in the novel, but I was always interested in her. A survivor of physical, sexual and mental abuse, she is a ward of the state in Sweden, but she in reality is a brilliant individual in her way. The two characters together -- vastly different but eerily similar in others -- is an Odd Couple match made in heaven.
The most important characters -- obviously -- make the jump from print to film, starting with Plummer as Henrik. It's just a quick appearance (Henrik is kept in the background more here), but a professional like Plummer makes it worthwhile. Steven Berkoff is a scene-stealer as Frode, Henrik's lawyer who sets up the job and investigation with Mikael. Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson play members of the Vanger family, both actors memorable in smaller parts. Robin Wright plays Erika, Mikael's long-time lover and fellow publisher/editor at the magazine they own. Also look for Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic and Donald Sumpter to round out the cast.
At its heart, 'Dragon' is a murder mystery, and a really good one at that. The premise and background of Harriet's disappearance is laid out early, and Fincher allows the story to develop as at first Mikael but then Lisbeth too becomes more involved in the case. In an investigation long since trapped in a dead end, the clues and pieces start to come together. It's a mystery at its best, and enjoyable to watch from beginning to heartbreaking end. Craig and Mara are perfect, Fincher a talent behind the camera, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the trilogy hopefully goes...and the novels too.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo <---trailer (2011): ***/****