The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first book (and film) in Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millenium Trilogy. The books have sold 65 million copies worldwide, and the three Swedish films have done blockbuster business throughout Europe and excessively well during limited runs here in the States. This much we know.
The mohawked elephant in the room though is David Fincher‘s American remake/adaptation that hits theaters this week.
Was it necessary to remake something already popular on such a global scale? Can Fincher improve upon Niels Arden Oplev’s original film? Can Rooney Mara do an equal or better job with the role that made Noomi Rapace an international star?
No. Yes. And hell yes.
Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a magazine editor who’s just lost his credibility and his life savings thanks to an accusatory cover story of his that couldn’t hold up against a charge of libel. Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is an anti-social, abused, bisexual computer genius whose status as ward of the state leaves her open to further victimization. Two people couldn’t be more different if they tried, but when the patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of a wealthy industrial family goes looking for answers to the apparent murder of his niece decades ago these two strangers come together in more ways than one.
The film moves evenly between two story lines that intertwine like urgent lovers with increasing frequency until they merge permanently. Blomqvist settles in on a remote and wintery island owned by the Vanger family where he immerses himself in the case and the family’s past and present. Salander’s job as a researcher who gets results through highly unconventional methods (ie hacking) helps draw her in after Blomqvist discovers the information she included in his own background check and hooks her with a simple offer.
“I want you to help me catch a killer of women.”
The theme of women as victims at the hands of men is central here as it is throughout Larsson’s novels. (The Swedish title of the first book actually translates to Men Who Hate Women.) But while the brutality of it all was at times overpowering in the novels and original films Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian resist rubbing our faces in the abuse. There is a fairly harsh rape scene, but the majority of the offenses are glimpsed in photos or on computer screens in such a way as to let our brains fill in the gaps that our eyes are missing.
It’s just as well as Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth offer up far more engaging visuals throughout the film starting with an opening credits sequence that channels a direct line into Salander’s tortured mind. The remainder of the film is somewhat more conventional whether we’re seeing a snowy drive up a tree-lined road or a fairly explicit sex scene, and Fincher finds the beauty in it all. His two leads add to the attractive scenery as well. Craig’s face is unavoidably filled with pulpy sadness, but here he turns it to believably frumpy use, while Mara’s large eyes draw the focus away from her facial piercings and bleached eyebrows to offer glimpses of the fragile girl inside this hard-shelled woman.
The entire cast does good work here, but special praise must go to Mara. This is a brave performance on par with Kathy Bates’ hot tub scene from About Schmidt but spread across an entire film. Salander is laid bare more than once here, not always physically and not always willingly, and Mara sells it all. The rage, the sadness, the curiosity, the shyness, the sexual appeal, the heart ache. Mara embraces and reveals it all and in the process makes the role her own.
There’s no doubt that Fincher is a master of style and technique, but he’s rarely been one to embrace the emotional side of things. He’s come close before, but it’s at the end of his latest that he manages to find the most singular human moment in all of his films. It’s fitting that his most damaged character be the one to deliver the most emotionally resonant scene in his filmography.
Unfortunately that ending comes with a much bigger set of problems as it arrives well after the central mystery, such as it is, has been resolved in suitable fashion. A separate story strand is allowed to run its course for upwards of twenty-five minutes, and while aspects of it are appealing it drains viewers of the adrenaline felt mere minutes before. The time spent on this collection of scenes allows viewers to reflect on the main story’s denouement and explanation, and many will begin to question the gaps in logic and predictability that their reflections unearth.
Fincher continues his attraction to lonely figures here as both Lisbeth, and to a lesser degree Mikael, have become somewhat isolated in life. From Alien 3 onward, Fincher has made films about people who’ve either chosen a solitary existence or been forced into one by circumstance. Ripley loses everyone she fought so valiantly for, Det. Somerset chooses solitude for the sake of the job and Det. Mills has it chosen for him, Nicholas Van Orten has everything and no one, Benjamin Button is a uniquely alone due to his condition, Mark Zuckerberg drives others awa…Salander is the most extreme example of Fincher’s predilection for the outcast as her incredibly harsh life has led to extreme anti-social behaviors. She’s damaged goods to be sure, but like a Weeble Wobble with a pierced labia, you can knock her but she won’t stay down.
If nothing else, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the best possible adaptation of Larsson’s novel that anyone could expect. Fincher captures the feminine oppression, fighting spirit and overall iciness, both literal and emotional, and he delivers a mostly compelling thriller along the way thanks in large part his pure skill and Mara’s hypnotic portrayal of Larsson’s iconic character. But the novel’s weak main mystery is replicated for the film (and actually worsened through recognizable casting), and when combined with an ending that never ends the result is a good film that fails to achieve the greatness it aspires towards. Still, “lesser Fincher” is a contradiction of terms, and in his hands even an unsurprising remake demands to be seen and savored.
The Upside: Rooney Mara is mesmerizing; this is the best possible adaptation of the source material; shot with assured style; score is wonderfully suited to the dark but driving atmosphere; ending features Fincher’s truest human moment; opening credits; best use of an Enya song ever.
The Downside: Central mystery is fairly rote; additional twenty-five minutes after the climactic ending are a drag; familiarity due to success of books and previous movies; slight change to ending forgoes logic.
On the Side: David Fincher stated recently that if the film does well and the two sequels are greenlit he would prefer to shoot them simultaneously.