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Blu-ray Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Blu-ray

It’s never easy for filmmakers to adapt a popular book. Not only are they are challenged with turning prose into cinema, but they must meet the expectations of an emotionally invested audience—and that audience has already created a movie of the book in their heads, as they read it.

That’s a tall order, but books-to-film are big business these days (Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games, anyone?). So it’s no surprise that we now have a Blu-ray of the 2011 film based on another smash bit of lit, the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

In this case, the filmmakers were not only up against reader expectations; they also faced the fact that another film based on the same book had already come out, in Sweden, in 2009.

That film (and its two sequels, based on the remaining two books in Larsson’s trilogy) were good; the American-produced Girl is better.

From the opening scenes, which establish the central mystery of the story and pull you right in, to the totally kick-ass credits sequence (which sets crazy digital graphics of electronics, motion, and dragons to a blistering new version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” sung by Nancy O.—it’s like a James Bond opening on crack), it’s obvious that this is going to be a first-rate production and a riveting film experience.

The mystery revolves around the 1966 disappearance of teenager Harriet Vanger. Her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has been haunted by this incident and, believing that she was murdered, hires journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to dig into the case and learn the truth. Blomkvist, dealing with legal and financial troubles after losing a libel case, takes the job, which lands him in a freezing cabin on an isolated, snow-covered Swedish island.

The investigation ultimately leads to Blomkvist connecting with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the tattooed girl of the title, who also has multiple piercings, a complete disdain for authority, little to no social skills, and an incredible, savant-like talent for computer hacking. She helps him with the investigation, the unlikely pair gets (ahem) closer, and things get deeper and darker as they circle the truth.

On the page, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dense, lengthy novel, filled with tons of exposition, multiple characters with hard-to-pronounce names, and coffee being consumed at all times (nicely retained in the movie). Screenwriter Steven Zalian does a masterful job of condensing the book into a tight script that tells the tale with eloquently written lines and visuals, conveying the novel’s ideas and story points with economy and punch. It’s like a textbook case of how to translate a novel for film without losing what made the book so good in the first place.

David Fincher was born to make this film; this book is noir all the way, and he’s well-versed in dark, having made Seven and Fight Club—but he also has a flair for story, as shown with his exemplary work on The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher doesn’t flinch from the tough stuff (nor would you expect him to, with that résumé). There are a couple of particularly harrowing scenes involving Salander and her abusive guardian (the well-cast, creepy Yorick van Wageningen) that are pretty rough going—and they should be, even though they are shot with taste and discretion.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not for the kiddies; Larsson’s original title of the book translates to “Men Who Hate Women,” and cruelty to women is certainly a prevailing theme, retained in this adaptation. Besides such harsh moments, the film’s also filled with sex, nudity, and decidedly adult themes. But it’s to Sony’s and the producers’ credit that they didn’t choose to dilute the story’s mature content—to “PG-13” it down. That would’ve totally sucked the life out of it, and would’ve totally sucked.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a superb thriller, a mesmerizing mystery, a fascinating character study, and just an all-around great film. Hell, it’s even a love story—Zalian and Fincher play up the romantic tone lightly touched upon in the book, through Blomkvist’s relationships with Salander and his editor, Erika Berger (Robin Wright, in a part that gets much more screen time than her counterpart in the Swedish version). Good move—this Girl has a heart as well as a pulse.

I’m sure many of us “cast” the film in our heads as we read a book—we envision certain faces as we visualize the story. Before I’d even read The Girl …, I’d heard rumors that Craig (best known as the current James Bond) was going to be cast, and as I read the book, he was always my Blomkvist. When I saw the Swedish film, the actor playing the role threw me off—who was that guy pretending to be Mikael? Craig’s been criticized for turning in a sullen performance here; true enough, but I think it’s a correct choice—the guy’s been through a lot. One thing I always liked about his Bond was that he looked like he’d been in some fights; Blomkvist looks like he’s been run over by a steamroller. He’s haunted. It works.

Rooney Mara delivers a star-making performance as Salander. The Swedish Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace, was pretty indelible herself, but Mara totally owns the role. Doe-pretty Mara (previously seen in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and a small but important role in The Social Network) not only physically transformed herself for the part, but also completely inhabits the psychology of the withdrawn, sullen, but resourceful and capable Salander. It’s no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar.

The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces and great performances, among them Plummer as the sad patriarch of a damaged family, Wright as Blomkvist’s lover/boss, and Stellan Skarsgard as Martin Vanger, brother of the disappeared Harriet.

Even the music here, by Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is extraordinary—sometimes just an ominous drone accentuating the growing dread of the onscreen action, at other times a strong theme adding to the impact of a scene. The Blu-ray’s audio options offer pristine enjoyment of sound  as well as sight.

The film is visually stunning. Filmed on location in Sweden, the movie’s snowy locales and old-world architecture come through beautifully in high-def, as do the more intimate character scenes in homes, offices, and city streets.

Generous bonus features include an incisive commentary from Fincher, featurettes on Blomkvist, Salander, the sets and locations, and much more—plenty to keep you busy, even after consuming the nearly-three-hour film.

But you’ll want to get the Blu-ray for the movie. It’s that good, and it will leave you wanting to see what happens next with these fascinating characters. So when are we getting those sequels?

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