Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine Hollywood creating a better adaptation than the Swedish production of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The worldwide popularity of Larsson’s trilogy of novels and the fact that the film broke box office records in Scandinavia no doubt influenced producer Scott Rudin and director David Fincher’s decision to make an American adaptation. Technically, their film is not a remake, but another take on Larsson’s work and they have the tricky task of creating something that stands on its own and away from the massive shadow of the Swedish version. Fincher is a filmmaker obsessed with details. Fanatically obsessed if you ask me. But one of the joys of his new film is the fact that he appears to have dialed himself down. Sure, there’s plenty of Fincher’s familiar stylized storytelling that many of his fans will no doubt enjoy, but to their credit, Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have remained almost completely faithful to the source material and tell the story in a straight-forward fashion.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo follows the story of middle-aged investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who has just lost a libel case against him concerning a corrupt business mogul involved in gun running. Blomkvist is a great reporter, but it appears his subject set him up to take a fall and in turn he’s lost his life savings. As the top journalist at the struggling magazine Millennium, Blomkvist also realizes his credibility is shot and much to the chagrin of his co-editor and married lover Erika (Robin Wright), he decides to resign. Strangely, his work catches the eye of industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who through representative Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), contacts Blomkvist with a rather interesting proposition. Vanger desperately needs Blomkvist’s investigative skills to solve a forty year old mystery and though the reporter is reluctant to be of service, the job will put him far from the public eye.
Thirty-six years earlier, Henrik’s sixteen-year-old niece Harriet disappeared during a corporate get together involving family and relatives at his estate and he believes one of them to be responsible. As the family patriarch, Henrik despises many of his family members and their dark history which includes ties to the Nazi party. Blomkvist decides to move onto the estate and accept the job which includes a very lucrative fee and the promise of new incriminating information on the business mogul who ruined his life. After searching newspaper archives, he discovers long lost snapshots of young Harriet attending a parade and through the use of computer software, pieces them together to reveal she’s looking at her possible murderer amongst the crowd. In time, Blomkvist realizes he can’t sort through this mystery on his own and requests that Frode find him a reliable assistant.
The research assistant is the very enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the title character of the story, hired previously by Frode to determine if Blomkvist was suitable for the job. Seemingly unapproachable under heavy goth make-up and facial piercings, Salander is an anti-social genius computer hacker who supplements her income as a private investigator. Blomvist is shocked to learn that she has composed a dossier on him containing every aspect of his life including intimate details even his closest friends are unaware of. Though Salander is 24-years-old, a dark incident from her past resulted in her becoming a ward of the state after she was declared emotionally incompetent. When her appointed case worker and guardian suffers a stroke, his replacement turns out to be a sadistic abuser and their encounters soon turn deadly. But Salander is a complex individual and a survivor often exacting deadly revenge on those who have crossed her.
When Blomkvist finally confronts Salander for her intrusion, it’s not out of anger. He’s rather impressed by her skills and potential, ultimately inviting her to join his investigation. In time they develop a rather peculiar relationship and their intuitive skills uncover several other murders of young girls, all Jewish, leading them to believe they were race based killings. The murders also parallel sadistic forms of death listed in the Hebrew bible. As Blomkvist and Salander probe deeper they raise the possibility that Harriet and those other young girls may have been the victims of a serial killer who could very well be alive today and monitoring their every move.
Stieg Larsson was a Swedish author and journalist who died in 2004 from a massive heart attack at the age of fifty. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first of a series of crime novels published posthumously and known as the “Millennium trilogy”, which to date has sold 27 million copies in 40 countries. Swedish film company Yellow Bird productions were the first to take on the daunting task of adapting the entire trilogy at once with three critically acclaimed films. Larsson’s stories are gritty, raw and to the point, hitting you like a sledgehammer with their violence and increasingly dark tone. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is also an intelligent and intriguing mystery that unfolds in unexpected ways and is directed in a method that makes you feel like a participant in the investigation.
When I first heard about an American version of this story, I really though they were going to “Americanize” everything from the Swedish setting to the characters. Fincher and Zaillian have stayed faithful to the source material and it’s a bold choice many others wouldn’t have made. There are a few personal touches from Fincher, but they actually serve and support the story, much like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. I felt their Oscar winning score for Fincher’s The Social Network was overrated and distracting, but their work here really sets the mood and tone of the film. I got lost in their music at times.
I’m partial to Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace who played Blomkvist and Salander respectively in three films prior to this one. Yet Craig and Mara manage to make the roles their own. Nyqvist made it easy to buy that Blomkvist isn’t a detective or action hero type, just an everyman who is susceptible to being deceived despite how intelligent he is. It’s tough to feel that way about Craig, since he has the persona of a movie star. Let’s face it, in today’s day and age, a studio isn’t going to write a check of over 100 million dollars to finance a film if the lead isn’t a movie star. Still, I liked Craig’s work during the investigative side of the story and he and Mara share an interesting onscreen dynamic. I’m one of the few who feels Craig’s best acting is when he’s not playing James Bond and he’s exceptionally good here.
What I also found interesting was how Rooney Mara managed to make Lisbeth seem more vulnerable than Rapace did, especially in the final moments of the film which follow the book and make this ending better than the Swedish version. Having said that, Rapace’s Lisbeth is still my favorite, because she felt more feral and maintained an air of mystery. You wanted to know more about her long after that movie was over. Still, Rooney Mara is exceptionally good. It’s not easy for actors to play characters of great intelligence and I could almost feel the gears in her brain moving behind her eyes as I watched her character work out a problem or come to a conclusion in her investigation. The sexual relationship Salander intiates with Blomkvist feels more intimate here, rather than casual like the Swedish film. If anything, that vulnerability Mara’s Salander gives off, makes you feel more sympathetic towards her at the film’s conclusion than Rapace’s version.
The original Swedish title of the novel was “Men Who Hate Women” and it’s actually very appropriate since there is much violence committed towards females in this story, with Salander receiving the brunt of it. Her cold demeanor suggests she’s more than just a survivor and though she retaliates with violence of her own, the results are even deadlier when she doesn’t use physical force. Salander’s black leather clothes, haircut and motorcycle seem to fit Mara like a glove.
If there is one small complaint I have about Fincher’s film, its his placement of a title sequence featuring Karen O’s wonderful cover of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”. After a brief opening scene barely two minutes long, we’re hit with images featuring waves of black oil, torture and fire that reminded me of the title sequence for the James Bond vehicle The World Is Not Enough. This sequence is incredibly impressive, but would have had more power had it been positioned at the very start of the feature or very end. Just as we’re trying to follow the opening segment of the film, BOOM, Fincher rocks our senses with this title sequence then takes us back to the story a few minutes later. It almost felt like someone suddenly turning on a stereo system while you were trying to read a good book and then you have to take a few moments to find your place again. It’s a minor flaw, because everything that follows unfolds in an engaging fashion making this one of Fincher’s best films. Lisbeth Salander is one of literature’s most interesting characters and Mara’s breakthrough performance almost ensures we will be seeing more of her interpretation in the near future.