"Stop visiting tattoo removal websites or I'll do it again... Right here!"
There's a long, sad story behind the creation of these novels by the author Stieg Larsson which involves his death before he could see the unbelievable success they became first as novels, then as Swedish films, and now as an American film. He was a journalist and an activist, and there has been tremendous controversy surrounding not only the cause of his death, but also the division of his assets. All that aside, he possessed a wonderful talent as a writer, and created probably the greatest heroine of this new century in the character of Lisbeth Salander.
When it was first announced that David Fincher was directing the American adaptation of the first novel in his Millennium Trilogy, I thought it superfluous at best and a downright cash grab at worst. I love David Fincher, he is one of the elite directors working in film today, but I didn't see it as necessary to do English language versions of the books, especially since the Swedish language version were not only well-liked, but also fairly faithful to the novels. What could any American director, let alone one of the great ones, possibly have to say that hadn't already been said?
A lot, apparently, and I have very rarely been so wrong as to write off a film sight unseen before. Fincher is a master and he puts on a clinic with this film. The story is pretty well-known at this point, but it involves a journalist with a tarnished reputation named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, proving once again he is one of the best actors working today) who has been approached by a wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, wonderful as always) to aid in solving the decades old disappearance of his niece. Blomkvist travels to the secluded northern Swedish estate where Vanger and his family live, to not only figure out the mystery, but also to escape the scrutiny he's under for his seemingly misguided attempt to sue a possibly corrupt businessman.
When he finds the case too much to handle alone, he asks for an assistant, and is paired with the aforementioned Salander (Rooney Mara, in the year's best performance by a mile), a young computer hacker with a sullied past of her own. Her scenes leading up to her involvement in the case are brutal, but she is no wilting flower, and is shown not just fending for herself, but leaving an indelible mark (pun fully intended) on anyone who wrongs her. As the two dig deeper and the mystery begins to unravel, it proves to be a murkier and more unsettling series of events than either was prepared to confront. If, like me, you're walking into this story cold, the less said about the details of the mystery, the better.
The film is full of wonderful character actors giving great performances, among them Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James & Robin Wright. As far as the two leads go, they are a force to be reckoned with on-screen. Craig shows that he has not gone so far to the tough guy side after playing Bond for the better part of the last decade. He plays a weak man in over his head, and he's thoroughly convincing (even if his accent does wax and wane). As for Mara, she is a revelation, and she announces her presence to the world in the boldest way possible, Now granted, the character is incredibly well written, but in the wrong hands, it could have been nothing more than a wasted opportunity at greatness. Thankfully, she is an actress as adept at infusing the character with life as the man who created her in the first place. She is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and I cannot wait to see what her future holds.
Fincher frames his film as only a master can, never getting bogged down in coverage, and always selecting the most eye-catching angles imaginable. The film reunites him with his best cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, who shot Fight Club and The Social Network with him, and the two are a formidable pair when working together. He's also wise in using Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor for the score, and it compliments every scene without ever being distracting.
Another reason to love Fincher is that he's a master of the long dead art of the opening credit sequence. His credit sequence here is like an S&M James Bond credit sequence, and it sets the mood perfectly for what follows. I wish more directors would invest the kind of time into opening titles that Fincher does, although it remains his conquered domain.
I sincerely hope that this team reassembles to make the other two films in the series. They deserve the chance to complete the trilogy. It depends upon a number of circumstances, but I am truly hopeful that it happens. I skirted a lot of the nastiness of the film that others have been dwelling on, and I have to tell you, there are three scenes in the film that are unbearably tense and disturbing, but they occupy a total of 10 of the film's 160 minutes, so they aren't worth not seeing the film over. They're awful, but they're so integral an necessary. They establish the awfulness of the human race that permeates the entire story and they're not superfluously tossed in for shock value. They're certainly not for the squeamish, but they're also not worth missing out on this entire film for.
Be back tomorrow for my number 2 film of 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.