Release Date: December 20, 2011
Rating: R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language)
Genre: Drama,Thriller, Adaptation
Run Time: 158 min.
Director:  David Fincher
Actors: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Joely Richardson, Julian Sands

CAUTION: The following review contains discussion of mature and explicit subject matter. Parental caution advised for younger readers.

Late author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has been an international phenomenon. Now we have the inevitable Hollywood entry of the first and most popular book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This dark, seedy material comes with high expectations because of its director David Fincher, an artist no stranger to disturbing cinema (Seven) or critical acclaim (The Social Network).

As modern moviemaking, it’s pretty remarkable. As an experience, at times, it’s downright sick.

To a degree that’s no fault of the film itself, which is a faithful translation of the book (and indeed a superior one to the Swedish version from 2009). Scenes we are asked to endure—including (but not exclusively) rape with elements of bondage and torture—are part of the fabric in Larsson’s text, and certainly will be required elements by fans of the novel the world over. The moments are there in lurid detail because so much of the audience is expecting them to be.

That expectation is far more telling and revealing than anything the movie—for all its praiseworthy craftsmanship—has to offer. It’s one thing for filmmakers to try and force this kind of thing upon an unsuspecting audience. It’s something else entirely when this has become mainstream, and is demanded. People want to see this. Yikes.

Set in Sweden, the crux of the plot revolves around a suspected murder from forty years ago, with a wealthy but very troubled family at the heart of the mystery. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, Beginners, who brings a much-needed charm to the heavy proceedings), the aging patriarch, wants to solve the disappearance of his long-lost niece before his health deteriorates further, in the face of familial opposition.

To do so, Vanger hires a famous investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, Cowboys & Aliens). Recently disgraced in a highly-publicized trial, Blomkvist seeks both professional and personal redemption, but with a case this cold he must hire someone with more unconventional (i.e. illegal) methods to uncover truths that have been carefully hidden for decades.

That person is the titular Girl, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, The Social Network), a brooding goth with a tragic personal history of foster homes and abuse that has led her to still being a ward of the state in her early 20s (which comes with its own abuses that elicit the film’s most explicit scenes). As the duo slowly but surely make discoveries, what they find leads to crimes much more far-reaching in scope, sadism, and danger. 

Familiar with what was in store, my own pre-viewing anxieties were tempered by Fincher’s track record with similar subject matter.  Previous efforts such as Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac—while graphic and not for the faint of heart—validated their depictions by indicting the very cultural elements that spawned them. In being excessive, Fincher forced us to take a look at our society’s excesses and the destructive ends to which they lead. For that matter, he even did the same in the PG-13 rated The Social Network.

My hope, then, was that he could find a way to elevate the source, somehow incorporate themes to make it about more than the story, say something challenging (even prophetic) about our culture, and use it to reveal our own implicitness in this sort of twisted perversion. But he doesn’t, or couldn’t, or perhaps was simply too mindful of the fan base to tamper with it by turning it into a soapbox. 

What we’re left with is gratuitous voyeurism, the kind that not only fails to convict its audience for the willful part it plays in the coarsening of our culture but actually becomes part of the problem. It’s bad enough we’re required to sit through a protracted rape/torture, worse yet we must also be taken through the subsequent revenge rape/torture of the perpetrator, and worse still that’s not the end of the vile explicitness the film has to offer.

The unfortunate irony is that this tightly-wound and superbly-acted thriller doesn’t need any of that mess to create suspense, build it, or make us care deeply for these battered souls (or want justice for the unrepentant). Despite its artistic and narrative strengths, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ends up descending into the dark and sadistic slums seen commonly on television (various CSIs, Criminal Minds, and the ilk), even if more artfully here, but also with much more depravity.

Yes, writer Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) distills the labyrinth of details with notable clarity while director Fincher sets and then exponentially ratchets a menacing tone. The cast really commits, Mara especially as the damaged woman whose instinctive avoidance of eye contact not only reveals her fear and distrust of everyone but belies the fact that she remains fiercely engaged in every moment. Subsequently, she’s poised to attack—violently—when an unsuspecting perpetrator (sexual and otherwise) thinks he’s in control.

Watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was as consistently impressed as I was disgusted. It becomes so disturbing at times you wonder, “Who is this even for?” It then becomes even more disturbing when you realize, “Oh, that’s right—it’s for millions of avid fans around the world.”

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Cigarette smoking occurs throughout the film. Alcohol is consumed. Drunkenness. Drugs are taken in a club setting.
  • Language/Profanity: A reference to cunnilingus is made.F-word is used many times, as are other profanities (A-word, S-word, etc.).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity (some involving violence): Themes involving infidelity. Woman performs masturbation on a man; no nudity, but action seen. Oral sex is performed; no nudity, but action is seen. Two women kiss and fondle each other in a club. They go to an apartment, undress, and begin to have sex (some nudity involved). The bruised body of a nude woman (back, breasts). Explicit rape of woman by man depicted, involving bondage, battery, torture. Explicit rape attack of man by woman depicted, involving beating, anal violation, and torturous scarring of skin. Two different consensual sex scenes between man and woman, involving full-frontal nudity of woman. Man undresses to underwear.
  • Violence: Sexual violence (see above). Depiction of non-sexual torture. Many forensic pictures of women killed by violent means; bodies are beaten, bloodied and disfigured. A dismembered cat is found. A woman assaults a man with a golf club. Wounds as a result of gunfire.
  • Other: The opening credit sequence, while not explicitly graphic in any particular way, is on the whole very unsettling and dark. Vomiting.