The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ****
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Steven Zaillian based on the novel by Stieg Larsson.
Starring: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Geraldine James (Cecilia), Goran Visnjic (Armansky).
David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suffers a little bit – just a little bit – from coming so close on the heels of the Swedish version of Stieg Larsson’s best selling trilogy. After all, it’s barely been a year since the original trilogy was released in North America, and for those of us who read the books before seeing those movies (and judging for the bestseller lists, that’s practically everyone) the story has become familiar – perhaps even overly familiar. But that doesn’t change the fact that Fincher’s version is in every conceivable way a far greater film than the original films. That’s rare for an American remake of a foreign film, but Fincher’s film is the exception that proves the rule I guess. As much as I enjoyed the original films, they did kind of feel like Swedish TV movies, and lacked a great director’s strong vision on the film. They were very faithful, very well acted (especially by Noomi Rapace) movies, but there was definitely more that could be done with the material. Fincher, one of the greatest directors in the world, does that.
The story is well known to just about everyone at this point. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has had to resign from his magazine job after losing a libel case brought by an industrial magnate. That is when he is approached by the mysterious Frode (Steven Berkoff) who represents Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) with a job offer – come to his isolated island in Northern Sweden and try and discover what happened to his beloved niece Harriet over 40 years before. One day, she just disappeared, and everyone assumes she was murdered. The island was cut off from the mainland that day, which means someone in the family did it – and they have been mocking Henrik every since. The Vanger’s are an exceedingly rich family, but a disturbed one. Violent alcoholics, Nazis and other assorted depravities run through them. The run is good, but Mikael isn’t sure he wants to take the job – until Henrik says that at the end of the year, he’ll give him the information needed to sink the man who ruined his career. So Mikael starts digging, and finds disturbing details, and realizes this job is too big for him alone. Frode has a suggestion – the very strange woman who did the background check on him. This is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
Lisbeth Salander is one of the greatest literary characters in recent years, and she is what elevates the entire series above the level of a normal thriller. She is a character who has had a hard life, and as a result, has walled herself away from everyone – she trusts no one, is brutally honest and blunt, and is more comfortable behind a computer than talking to people. Her Goth look and abrupt manner keep people at bay. To understand Lisbeth, it helps to know that the original Swedish title of the book translated as “Men Who Hate Women”, which is in essence what the entire series is about. It is about men who hate women, who abuse women, who try to control and possess women. Through her experiences, which are only hinted at in this movie, much like the book (but will make up the narrative for the second two novels), she has learned to hate men like that. So when Mikael comes to her with his offer to have her help him catch a “killer of women”, she cannot resist. But she holds Mikael at arms length, only gradually allowing herself to have feelings for him, as he slowly earns her trust. She is not a lesbian who is turned by Mikael, as some have suggested, but a bi-sexual, who until she meets Mikael simply hates men. The pitch perfect end of this movie shows just how hurt she is by what she considers to be Mikael’s betrayal of her. She allowed herself to feel something for someone else for the first time in years, and she gets hurt. Mara’s performance is one of the very best of the year – she suggests depths to Lisbeth that are key to her character, who could very easily come across as an emotionless psychopath if not played correctly. Like Noomi Rapace in the original series, she does a lot of acting with her face, in silent moments, that lets you see beyond her exterior designed to keep people away. In essence, she wants what everyone else wants, but her experiences make it difficult if not impossible to truly open herself up to them.
The film is also a triumph for Fincher himself. The previous versions, as good as they were, lacked the visual look and feel that Fincher brings to this material. He burrows deeper into the mysteries of the novel, so you always feel you are in the hands of a master storyteller. The cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth is darker than before, the scenes where horrible things happen hit you harder this time around. Once again working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (as he did on The Social Network), Fincher’s film once again has the best music of any film this year. Reznor and Ross don’t do a traditional score, but rather come up with one that is strangely perfect for the film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo operates as the flip side to Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac (still his best film). Both are about a decades long search for a serial killer, but while Zodiac offered a bleak outlook – the more you dig, the more you know, but you come no closer to catching the killer – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo offers a more hopeful, more traditionally satisfying narrative. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much a mainstream thriller – but one made with more skill than we are used to seeing Hollywood come up with. It is, in short, the best mainstream, adult thriller of the year.