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David Fincher breathes fire into ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

While tonally speaking, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is indeed the self-proclaimed “feel bad movie of Christmas” it says it is, it certainly isn’t so because of its quality.

Based on the best-selling trilogy of novels by Swede Stieg Larsson, “Dragon Tattoo” follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just been found guilty of libeling billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström. One of Wennerström’s competitors, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), with the aid his son, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), enlist Blomkvist, and later, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), to investigate the disappearance of a family member in exchange for information.

“Dragon Tattoo” isn’t for the faint of heart, and kudos to director David Fincher (“The Social Network”) for strapping on some cojones and making it so. Not only did he tackle a project with expectations high enough to brush the cosmos – the Swedish film adaptation is almost as well-respected as as the original trilogy of books, which is a rare sight, indeed – but for retaining some of the source material’s most disturbing moments, several of which involve rape and torture.

But “Dragon Tattoo” isn’t a fine film because of shock value, but rather because Fincher is a master storyteller. The film is far from svelte, weighing in at a lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes long, but even with such a meaty runtime, it’s never long in the tooth or convoluted, avoiding an unfortunate cancer that saddles many contemporary dramas.

Then there’s Mara.

Mara’s take on Lisbeth is strangely enigmatic in the sense that she’s the proverbial train wreck who’s hard to look away from – well, that is to say, except for a couple instances of cringe-worthy brutality that are particularly hard to watch.

It’s not to say she’s especially destructive, but more of a “destructee,” of sorts. She’s the victim of a rough upbringing and some shockingly rougher events during the course of the film, but even so, the tough exterior she exudes provides many of the film’s best moments, and Academy Award voters would be remiss from noticing it.

The same can’t be said for Craig, which is a shame, because I want to love the guy. Being James Bond has really opened doors for him, and rightfully so as he’s a true talent, but I’ve yet to see him exert any real charisma, and the same is true here.

Now, it would be unfair to criticize him too much here as his character doesn’t exactly call for Heath-Ledger-as-Joker-type theatrics, but, as the lead, he takes a back seat to Mara, which is a minor failure. We’re supposed to feel for the guy as he’s not only brought to near bankruptcy being ordered to pay $300,000 as part of his libel conviction, but also near the film’s end when he finds himself in a rather dire predicament.

Sadly, we don’t.

That’s just grasping at straws, however, as “Dragon Tattoo” is a triumph of storytelling. While I wish the visuals weren’t as drab – though the film’s 007-like title sequence set to Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is something to behold  – and that Reznor’s score was little more than droning background noise, it’s still a wonderful exercise in narrative that’s worthy of major awards recognition, even if it’s far from the jolly family fare coming out this holiday.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is rated R and is scheduled to hit theaters Tuesday.

Grade: A-

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