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Review: 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is a measured and suspenseful thriller

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 3:42 PM EST, Tue December 20, 2011
What it comes down to is,
What it comes down to is, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is Rooney Mara's movie, in the role of Lisbeth Salander.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Fincher's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a top-notch thriller
  • Rooney Mara is nothing short of brilliant, and deserving of acclaim
  • Daniel Craig does some of his best work to date as Blomkvist

(CNN) -- Often, US remakes of foreign language films are so poorly made as to completely lose whatever made them attractive for remaking in the first place.

Films like 2002's "Insomnia" (a remake of Erik Skoldbjærg's excellent original and a rare misstep for Christopher Nolan) and 1993's "Point of No Return" (a rather pale remake of 1990's brilliant Luc Besson film "Nikita") were far inferior to their non-American predecessors. David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," however, is a top-notch thriller that looks likely to give Niels Arden Oplev's original a run for its money, even among its fans.

For the 15 of you who have not read the book (count me in that minority) "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a mystery thriller that begins with the end of a high-profile trial in which nationally renowned journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been convicted of libel. He maintains that his reporting was correct, but the court rules that he couldn't prove his allegations against one of Sweden's wealthiest men and renders a rather stiff financial judgment against him.

While he avoids jail time, the verdict costs him his life savings and severely damages the reputation and financial well-being of Millennium, the magazine he co-publishes with Erika Berger (Robin Wright) his married, on-again/off-again lover. Shortly after the trial ends, Blomkvist is contacted by Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) the attorney for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired industrial magnate who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate an unsolved murder.

Is 'Dragon Tattoo' Oscar bait?

It seems Henrik's favorite niece Harriet disappeared 40 years ago and he is convinced she was murdered by a member of his family, which he describes as a collection of "thieves, misers, bullies ... the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet." They include at least two Nazis.

Thus begins this engrossing, twisted and occasionally unsettling thriller, the first half of which is basically a dual-story affair. One thread is the start of Blomkvist's investigation into Harriet's murder (hidden from the rest of the Vanger clan behind the pretense that he is writing a Vanger family history); the other introduces us to the fascinating character that is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the master computer hacker/private investigator who Vanger hired to do a background check on Blomkvist.

Mara is nothing short of brilliant, deserves every bit of acclaim thrown her way and is, rightly, in the conversation for a best actress nomination. She's completely immersed in her character (the Internet is rife with stories of all the piercing, training and bleaching that she did to get into character) and flat out becomes Lisbeth.

While Blomkvist is a thorough and meticulous investigative journalist, it's clear that he's in over his head. Enter Lisbeth, one of the great literary and filmic characters of our time. She's permanently about 5 degrees shy of a roiling boil and yet is often completely placid ... on the outside, at least. She's the most tightly wound, delicate yet tough as nails, wholly offbeat, supremely cool character to come along in years and I think I am in love.

While his character is not even remotely as interesting as Salander, Craig does some of his best work to date as Blomkvist, and it's fun watching him slowly start to learn just how deep and dark the investigation is becoming. Spending weeks away from the spotlight of Stockholm is exactly what he needs to get his juices flowing again and get over his personal and professional setback.

The pacing is mostly perfect (ok, maybe little bits of "TV procedural" style sneak in, here and there, especially in the film's final act) and Fincher and his team are master manipulators in the best sense of the word. Whatever the mood requirement of a particular scene, be that suspense, fear, horror, pity, disgust or arousal, they get it done. (Although one particular scene, mentioned below, may cross the line for some.)

The country of Sweden ought to get lead billing. As Fincher has said, this film could not have been transferred to a North American city and the smartest decision the producers made was to not only shoot it in Sweden but to make a very Swedish film. Considering how important the location is to the story, to move it anywhere else or to tone down the Scandinavian nature of the film would have been crippling.

While I was underwhelmed with "The Social Network," (Yeah, yeah, I know -- save it) there's no question that David Fincher is one of the most talented filmmakers working today. From the first teaser, it was clear that "Dragon Tattoo" was going to be something special and Fincher doesn't disappoint. It's a long film at slightly more than 2½ hours and not once did I get antsy.

"Dragon Tattoo" is a measured, simmering and suspenseful detective thriller, injected with bursts of action and violence, including a truly sickening scene that treads just this side of NC-17 and which made me more uncomfortable as a viewer than I would like. Those familiar with the book or original film will guess of what I speak and the scene in question in this version is even more unsettling than in the original.

Ms. Mara's performance is both emotionally, and occasionally physically, naked, and while Fincher is indeed a fantastic director, I would be intrigued to see what a woman director would do with this sort of material. The above-mentioned scenes in particular played a bit too exploitative and prurient for my tastes.

That said, it was a very small part of an otherwise engrossing and entertaining film. Fincher, along with screenwriter Stephen Zaillian, composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and the rest of the crew have created a tight, dark and mysterious world, one rife with family secrets, sexual perversity, financial corruption and, on occasion, redemption.

When it comes down to it, this is Rooney Mara's movie, and I don't care if the second and third stories are any good as long as they are full of Lisbeth Salander.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) and contains sex and violence as well as the combination of the two.

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