Review: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” Bleak But Stunning

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is dripping with unpleasantness, tough to watch and about as warm and inviting as a new grave – but it also happens to be a captivating thriller and the must-see movie of Christmas.

Full disclosure – I went into “Dragon Tattoo" completely cold (no pun intended). I have not read the books, nor have I seen the original Swedish film adaptations. So I can attest to the fact that an uninformed audience can walk into “Dragon Tattoo" and get utterly absorbed because, if you are able to judge this film on its own merits alone, you will find they are abundant.

For the other uninitiated, just know that "Dragon Tattoo" is about a disgraced journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who gets hired by a wealthy recluse (a sterling Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his niece way back in the 1960s. A strange twist of fate finds Blomkvist teamed with a pierced and tatted computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who is dealing with her own troubled life.

The superlatives have to begin with the titular girl herself. The best thing you can say about Mara is that she inhabits the role so completely she actually feels like someone director David Fincher found in the subways of Stockholm. Her gaunt, almost eyebrow-less face looks like a naked skull, and she manages to exude both terrifying aggression and an intensely pitiable pain often at the same time (from one moment to the next, she's able to morph from androgynous teen to ghostly angel of death to cold and emotionless woman). It’s an iconic role in the making, one that will see Rooney's name spoken in the same breath as Heath Ledger's ("May I kill him?" is her "Why so serious?").

Craig, meanwhile, does a lot with a largely thankless role. Blomkvist is a good but not great investigator, a possibly iffy journalist, a generally decent man with some moral question marks and a lousy father. But Craig gives him a some life and a sense of humor about himself and his situation that gel beautifully with Mara's sneering sociopathy. Together they make one of the best – certainly the oddest – movie pairings we've seen in a long time.

Fincher's technical mastery also deserves special mention because of how invisible it is. Unlike, say, James Cameron or Michael Bay, Fincher doesn't want to use technology to blow you through the back of the theater. He uses it subtly, wrapping invisible tendrils around you and sucking you into the story without a lot of blatant trickery. He makes astounding use of Sweden's slate-gray world and turns a simple snow-covered bridge into a terrifying harbinger of doom. Fincher also handles the film's stomach-churning sequences of sexual violence in a way that does not flinch from the brutality but also doesn't seem exploitative. It's no mean feat. Again: Tough to watch.

The director missteps only in the film's last 10 minutes, when the story seems to veer off-course as a way to set up the inevitable sequel. You see what he's doing, but it takes away from the film's intricate build-up and actually feels like a sequence from an entirely different movie. Given what came before, it's anticlimactic.

Finally, it's rare that you feel compelled to mention a film's score, but Fincher has reteamed with his "Social Network" composer Trent Reznor, and the results are spectacular (which is saying something, since "Social Network" earned Reznor an Oscar). The milieu of "Dragon Tattoo" just fits the former Nine Inch Nails frontman like a spiked glove (middle finger extended). The bravura opening title sequence – set to Reznor and co-writer Atticus Ross's cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" – is like the evil opposite of a jaunty James Bond opener, and it tops even Fincher's breathtaking "Fight Club" titles. (Reznor and Ross have already been nominated for a Golden Globe for the score.)

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a nasty but utterly absorbing little romp through the worst of humanity. What better way to escape your own family this holiday?

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" opens everywhere Dec. 21.

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