In the blood-soaked hands of the hair-raising, always surprising director David Fincher, the creepy remake of Sweden’s grisly thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is dreary and confusing but technically superb—a darkly photographed and superbly acted film. It is not my cup of bitter tea laced with arsenic, but I admire its tenacity in keeping the viewer dazzled, while the toxic effect of its violence, sometimes unwatchable, left me charged. I hated the 2009 Swedish film version, my dashed attempt to read the book (the first volume in the crime trilogy by the late, overrated Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson) put me to sleep faster than a double-dose of Dalmane, and I still don’t understand why it has been recycled in an estimated $100 million remake as unnecessary as it is unoriginal. It is also impossibly long-winded. When it ended, after just under a whopping three hours, I ended up impressed, in spite of my reservations. If I had found it even half as incomprehensible as it is, I might have liked it twice as much.
Oh, my god, that plot. After being investigated for making licentious mistakes in fact-checking a magazine profile that causes a scandal, the controversial, complicated and egotistical journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses his job, apartment, moral compass and most of his sanity. Then he spends the rest of this interminable, head-scratching thriller trying not to lose his life and everything below his gym-ready waistline and above his walnut-cracking thighs in one scene of nasty brutality after another. He’s crafty, but he’s also a two-fisted fool for getting recruited by Swedish industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (a wasted Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet, who disappeared 40 years ago from a family reunion on a sinister island with an unpronounceable name off the coast of Sweden. The case was never solved, but Vanger believes she was murdered by a member of his own dysfunctional family. Here the brain-twisting plot begins to get delusional. As the reporter begins to unravel multiplying clues, he tracks down and hires Lisbeth Salander (newcomer Rooney Mara), a chain-smoking, motorcycle-riding Goth lesbian computer hacker shrouded in black leather whose invasion of his hard drive reveals the errors that have tanked his career. This zombie is a real creep workout, replete with body piercings, a dragon tattoo that encircles her body and more rings around her eyes than a rabid raccoon.
Sharing a deserted cottage by the sea in a gray, frozen Swedish winter, the reporter and his freaked-out researcher, equipped with his-and-her laptops, dig up newspaper reports from the year Harriet disappeared, connecting an entire series of homicides, and before you can yell “Holy Whitechapel Ripper!” the Vanders turn out to be a whole family of serial killers! There’s Henrik’s brother, a Nazi who died in 1940, and the brother’s son, Gottfried, and grandson, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), the latter two of whom continually raped and sodomized Harriet, Martin’s sister, who moved to Australia and is living under the assumed name of her cousin Anita. It takes an hour and a half before the two stars of this bizarre puzzle meet and he hires her to look up all the other women who have been murdered under similar circumstances, all raped and killed, all with names from the Bible and linked by verses from Leviticus. Then, under pressure, they end up in bed in a savage sexual fury—an unconvincing twist, since Lisbeth has endured a lifetime of rape and sexual torture herself, and despises men. (We’ve just seen her sewing up an eye with dental floss, tying up a victim and tattooing “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on his chest with a carving knife.) Reckless, hostile and pretty close to being a serial killer herself, she’s seriously damaged, exacting gruesome revenge on anyone who crosses her, but when it comes to her boss, she melts, saving a naked Mr. Craig from an unbearably convincing basement torture chamber that leaves nothing to the imagination.
I’m a big fan of the kind of sleaze and terror David Fincher is famous for (think Se7en and Fight Club) and this is no exception. The great screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s elaborate, convoluted script, so muddled that even after it’s over you still don’t know what it’s all about, is a drawback—but the movie is a master class in sinister style, tense and deeply uncomfortable. The cold Swedish dreamscape of blackness is so effective that sometimes you feel like you need a flashlight. Mr. Fincher also knows how to bring out the fearlessness in actors. As James Bond, Mr. Craig is a terrific mixture of sarcastic charm and sartorial splendor, in or out of the sack, but when the role calls for something darker, he’s equally well equipped. Mr. Skarsgård is especially scary because of the sheer exploitation of power with which he manipulates people under the guise of polite, amiable calm—making his later scenes from friendly to ferocious doubly shocking. Ms. Mara is a damaged ferret, her eyes darting, her tongue rubbing her stapled lips as she helps the mentally distraught reporter try to make sense of a deepening mystery. It all adds up to a noxious brew of teeth-grinding, knuckle-whitening brutality. Merry Christmas to you, too.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Running time 158 minutes
Written by Steven Zaillian and Stieg Larsson
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara and Stellan Skarsgård