This is a film that will send a shiver down your spine. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not festive Christmas fare, let’s just get that out of the way at the start.
Featuring shockingly brutal scenes of rape, incest, violence and murder, it’s a lot more extreme than anything playing elsewhere in the multiplexes this weekend.
And as one of the few people left in America who has not read the bestselling Stieg Larsson books on which the film is based, I had no idea what to expect. But knowing the books (and me) well, my partner whispered to me just as the opening credits played, “You’re really not going to like this.”
That turned out to be an accurate prediction. I didn’t like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at all, but I was entertained and shocked by it and I did find it very gripping. As fast paced and remarkably graphic depictions of the most sordid side of human nature go, the film rarely misses a beat.
In particular there is the luminous performance by Rooney Mara, 26, the gifted young Irish American actress.
Mara is Irish American royalty, her grand-uncle is Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the current U.S. ambassador to Ireland while her Mara relatives co-own the New York Giants.
Mara’s portrayal of the damaged but brilliant Lisbeth Salandar is undeniably Oscar worthy, and my pick for performance of 2011. She’s the best thing in this otherwise uneven but compelling film.
Mara inhabits her prickly but fascinating outsider character so completely you may wonder if she’ll ever emerge from the role. In real life known for her perky, sorority queen Irish American good looks, you’ll be hard pressed to recognize her after her complete transformation into the Swedish punk rock lesbian Salandar.
Humble to a fault, Mara was genuinely surprised to hear of her Golden Globe nomination for her performance. But anyone who sees the film knows it’s a career making role, and Mara gives it everything she’s got, carrying the entire film on her slender shoulders.
To my surprise, the plot of Dragon Tattoo turned out to be as dense as Gone With the Wind, and for the most part it’s completely preposterous.
But this is a thriller, not a social study, so some concessions must be paid. The original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women, and it’s a far more accurate assessment of what happens in the film.
As many of his biggest fans already know, Larsson, the now deceased writer of the potboiler books on which the film is based, once witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. He did nothing to stop it at the time, and he was haunted by the memory of it for the rest of his life.
In fact he named Lisbeth, the hero of Dragon Tattoo, after the real young woman he had failed to help. So sexual and physical violence against women (and this time spectacular revenge) are a huge element of his books and also the new film.
But the plot begins with Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced publisher who has just lost a libel case against the billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström.
On the eve of losing his job and reputation, Blomkvist says yes to a new assignment when he is invited to meet Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) the retired former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, the most successful in Sweden.
Under the guise of writing Vanger’s memoirs, Blomkvist is actually contracted to investigate the unsolved murder of his great-niece Harriet who disappeared 36 years earlier.
Accepting the offer, Blomkvist moves onto the remote Vanger estate in snowy northern Sweden and begins his research into the history of the Vanger family and unexplained Harriet's disappearance.
That’s when things start to get weird, fast. Vanger’s equally rich brother and grandson turn out to be enthusiastic Nazis. Every other relative is estranged or uncontactable. Blomkvist quickly discovers that his presence on the family compound is far from desired.
It takes over an hour for Blomkvist to meet up with Salandar in the film, but when they do the film kicks into high gear and they form an alliance to investigate the missing girl’s death.
The chemistry between Craig and Mara is palpable, and the film allows us to see his sensitive side in a way that balances out her action hero toughness.
But the American translation of the book (and original Swedish film) have made some startling choices, one of which is how much time they give to the sexual fling that flares up between Lisbeth and Blomkvist.
It’s absurd to suggest that young women become lesbians because they don’t like or trust men. Being lesbian is not something you become like a train conductor or a nuclear physicist, it’s something that you are.
Dragon Tattoo suggests that Lisbeth is a lesbian, and then it contradicts this idea when Blomkvist enters the picture.
There are other and far more deeply unsettling aspects to the relationship between men and women in the film too, not the least of which is the amount of men plotting or actually enacting horrifying physical and sexual harm to the women they encounter.
But other than to provide villains to drive the plot, it’s hard to know what the point of this cavalcade of sadists actually is.
Are the writer and the film suggesting that most men are inherently vicious brutes who will indulge the basest parts of their own nature if given the opportunity? Is there a larger point being made about Swedish society and the lingering ghosts of World War Two?
Or is it all just gratuitous sex and violence to indulge rape and retribution fantasies to purge the writer’s guilt for having refused to help an all too real woman long ago?
These are troubling and complicated questions that Dragon Tattoo raises but rarely answers, which seem unfortunate considering how potent the discussion could be.
There are other false notes too. When a dead and dismembered cat turns up on Bloomkvist’s door, neither he nor Salandar take any major precautions about their security, which seems incredible considering the clarity of the threat.
The choice to turn Salandar into the action hero, leaving the man who regularly plays James Bond to stay home and piece the mystery together on his kitchen laptop, puts a nice contemporary spin on the usual Hollywood formula. Mara is literally outstanding in the role and rewards your patience with an unforgettable performance.
A word too about the unsettling -- hell, creepy -- opening graphics. If you watch them, and most will, be prepared to lose a good night’s sleep.
Dragon Tattoo pulls out every stop to disturb and disorient you, up to and including cheap shots to make you jump out of your seat.
One of them involves a massive underground gas-filled complex where the film’s serial killer tortures and murders his prey. It’s simultaneously chilling and unbelievable, rather like the film itself.
Watch the extended trailer below: