It is almost a little humorous how doubtful film critics and Internet bloggers were when it was announced that the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson’s award-winning bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was going to be adapted for American audiences. It was not so much out of fear that the source material would not be given the proper treatment, but it was more relative to the fact that there was already a perfectly watchable film out there. Filmed properly in the Swedish language, the 2009 version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” became a big deal with critics and soon garnered a cult following amongst American audiences as well. So with an already commendable film effort out there, why did the world need a sure-to-be-bastardized reworking done by the remake machines themselves known as the American movie industry?
And then it was announced that David Fincher was going to be director. Like magic, all uncertainty and skepticism suddenly vanished.
It says a lot about how film buffs will just light up about a project when the right people are involved. But really, who can blame them for foaming at the mouth over Fincher’s attachment to the American remake? Aside from an uneasy beginning in 1993 with “Alien 3,” Fincher has been one of the most consistently brilliant and influential directors of the last two decades. As the overseer behind modern classics such as “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” he clearly has his work cut out for him.
In theory, Fincher sounds like the perfect guy to supervise such dolefully grim source material. He works very efficiently with dark themes and imagery, whether they are lucid or restrained. The story of “Seven” revolves around ugly murder scenes involving the seven deadly sins. “Fight Club” deals with the dehumanization of one individual through advertising tactics and corporate America, the formation of a fight club for other social rejects to duke out their aggression, the spreading of even more fight clubs in surrounding cities, and their gradual transformation into a united anarchist organization. Even something as superficially inconspicuous as “The Social Network” has less to do with Mark Zuckerberg’s invention of Facebook than it does with the less savory aspects of human nature, such as betrayal, petty jealousies and forsaking of trusts.
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” in part tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a writer for the Swedish magazine Millenium who has recently been charged for publishing a libelous article pertaining to the endeavors of a highly prosperous industrialist named Wennerstrom. His scandal story saturated headlines and news channels, and his failed efforts to support his case in court might jeopardize the great name of the magazine for good. As well as cost Blomkvist a pretty penny for his unreliable claims.
However, Blomkvist receives an unexpected phone call on Christmas night to meet at the mansion of a retired CEO industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who extends a proposition to the humiliated journalist and co-owner of the magazine. Ostensibly, Vanger brought Blomkvist out to write his memoirs, but the real task he inquires about is that he investigates the unsolved murder case of his great-niece Harriet, who has been dead for over forty years and who is believed to have been snuffed by somebody in the family. In return, Vanger promises to pay him a handsome sum for simply staying on the case, an even greater amount if he can solve it, and perhaps the strongest selling point for Blomkvist: hard evidence in his case against the accused Wennerstrom.
So Vanger directs him to study the most detestable collection of people he will ever meet…his family. Some of them had connections with the Nazi party, some are seriously corrupted individuals, but all of them happened to be present on the isolated island the day Harriet disappeared in 1966 and all live in separate cabins on the same island. It seems appropriate that the island is perpetually coated in a thick layer of pure white snow, as the Vanger family is both physically and emotionally snowed in from the family members’ existences, living their own lives in closely contained isolation.
Meanwhile, we also meet the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, taking over the role previously occupied by Noomi Rapace). Lisbeth is an adroit computer hacker and researcher for Milton Security, but is a socially maladroit and deeply unnerving anomaly to everyone else around her. Her hair is of an impossibly black color that insinuates emotional detatchment, she has spontaneous tendencies to erupt into fits of violence, and speaks little unless spoken to. Mara was in Fincher’s previous film “The Social Network” playing Erica Albright, Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend who always had an icy glare when trying to speak with him. Lisbeth makes Erica look like little Cindy Lou Who by comparison.
Lisbeth was the person responsible for managing Blomkvist’s background report after his most recent debacle, but is later hired by Blomkvist himself to be his research partner on the case of Harriet’s murder. She exhibits an almost supernatural skill for breaking into people’s hard drives and acquiring their most personal information. In fact, that is precisely what led Blomkvist to her is the painstaking specifics she included in his background report.
Mara, as I said, was great in her small role in “The Social Network,” but Lisbeth Salander is truly her breakout role that will, in all likelihood, solidify her position as a reliable actress in the future. Aside from a moment when she dons a disguise consisting of a blonde wig and oversized sunglasses, she is nearly unrecognizable underneath that face full of piercings and that permanent scowl of utter contempt. She portrays here a character with an aggressive exterior, but also one who is vulnerable and clearly comes from a troubled upbringing. It is actually sorta jarring to see Lisbeth almost crack a smile at the end as she delicately utters good news to her legal guardian about Blomkvist: “I made a friend.”
In a way, it is incredibly difficult to find any characters that can be filed under ‘likeable.’ Just about everyone has their own ugly story to themselves, or they participate in extraordinarily immoral acts. One story arc that is unforgettably disturbing is the one between Lisbeth and her newly acquired guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), a repugnant man with a lecherous mind. He forces sexual acts upon Lisbeth in exchange for a necessary increased monthly allowance, and at one point rapes and tortures her for being insubordinate. As heartbreaking as the scene is to watch for the poor girl, the moment when Lisbeth exacts sweet revenge on the sick freak isn’t very kosher either.
Each of the characters found in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is intriguingly disgusting and vile in their own ways. But what is at the forefront of the film is its labyrinthine mystery story. Even for a film that runs nearly three hours in length, it is still densely compacted with information and answers that ultimately lead to more questions. Most scenes are packed entirely with dialogue written by “Moneyball” co-writer Steven Zaillian, while others are silent sequences in which people are clicking away at the computer and investigating the information they just received. In a way, these parts are necessary. They are alleviating moments in which the audience can reflect on everything in the scene before and allow it to soak in comfortably.
It isn’t always pretty. In fact, it probably isn’t EVER an uplifting viewing experience. However, David Fincher’s adaptation is tremendously engrossing, expertly executed and, in this writer’s humble opinion, is preferable to the Swedish version in many ways. But unlike the nearly identical similarities between “Let The Right One In” and the American version “Let Me In,” this 2011 edition of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is plenty original enough to differentiate itself from the first film adaptation. For one, Fincher included arguably the most visually mesmerizing opening credits sequence of the year featuring a slightly creepy industrial rock cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”