In her grand entrance, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) pulls off her motorcycle helmet to reveal a wild, ravishing hairdo and sulks into her employer’s office to meet her client. She does not do this often. She is lonely, socially inept, and emotionally withdrawn. Her job as a freelance hacker keeps her contact with others to a minimum and feeds her secretive lifestyle. Lisbeth has a photographic memory, is extremely intelligent but also admits to being insane, which makes her the perfect heroine to deal with a serial killer. Inspired by Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the Swedish film adaptation of the same name, director David Fincher put his own atmospheric, detailed, and intense mark on the first installment of the Millennium Trilogy in what is surely this year’s most chilling and depressing Christmas film.
Dragon Tattoo tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a Stockholm journalist in the middle of a libel suit filed by Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) a billionaire financer suspected of being connected to crime rings. Charged for using false documents to build his case, Blomkvist is plucked by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet who went missing 40 years ago. In exchange for any new insight, Vanger promises Blomkvist information he needs to put Wennerström away for good.
Blomkvist accepts and moves into a small shed of a house on the Vanger island community where most of the surviving members of the family still live. All present themselves to be potential suspects. There are Nazis, hunters, and spiteful, abusive people. Blomkvist was offered little protection where he was situated.
Harald (Per Myrberg) is Henrik’s lone surviving sibling and is a recluse. Harald’s two daughters are estranged: Cecilia (Geraldine James) lives on the island, and Anita Vanger (Joely Richardson) lives in England. Gottfried’s son, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) is the current CEO of the Vanger Industries.
When Blomkvist finds a lead in the case, he asks for the help of an assistant. Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), the family’s lawyer suggests the researcher they used to investigate Blomkvist: Lisbeth Salander. But she has her own problems. When her legal guardian and lawyer Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson) suffers a stroke, Salander is assigned a new guardian and lawyer, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) who extorts Salander for sexual acts in exchange for money in her trust fund.
Bjurman’s vile and reprehensible acts that ensue echo the work that Blomkvist is investigating. Rape in movies is often a questionable act to show on camera, often times it’s excessive. Not here. It’s a pivotal scene, and thematic in the bigger story. While you writhe in your seat, your rage will undoubtedly build; it’s a necessary, but painful journey for both Salander and audience; her eventual vindication becomes a rallying point. Salander will not be victimized and makes certain it never happens again. Now both she and viewer are conditioned for the place where act two descends to.
This second act is where Fincher’s version shines above the Swedish version. Harriet’s disappearance leads to a far more insidious road than originally thought, one filled with such anger and hate. We’re given a more honest portrayal of Salander and Blomvkist’s progress in the investigation. Each works his and her specialty. They compliment each other and instantly respect each other’s skills.
Unlike the Swedish version we see Blomkvist’s co-editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright) maintaining her affair with him, and burdens Mikael with their financial troubles at the magazine. Blomkvist ever so slightly, internally disapproves of his daughter Pernilla’s (Josefin Asplund) passion for youth ministry. Salander checks up on Bjurman to make sure he follows through with her list of demands. Fincher plays up the hard winter conditions more, as well as the remoteness of Hedestad by giving Blomkvist the impossible task of finding a cell phone signal during the entire film.
Then there’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score plays to the themes of loneliness, terror and hopelessness. Its melancholic rhythm bonds the exhaustive research done by Salander and Blomkvist with the urgency of time. Again, it’s the details that stand out in a David Fincher film.
The perfectionist filmmaker cherry picked what worked best in the novel with a Steve Zaillian (Moneyball) screenplay and the changes they arrived to are logical. It’s the novel they’re adapting not the Swedish film, but that’s not to say they weren’t influenced by it.
Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film stands tall on its own. Oplev proved he could make a film that was more direct in its telling, and focused on debunking two pivotal clues. The Swedish director whose bulk work is in serial TV–hence a more reasonable budget–also chose to also adapt the best of novel, but wanted to paint a more complete picture of Salander and how she came to be. Fincher meanwhile sacrificed that to give the matter of Wennerström and the present day story a more thorough and sensical treatment.
Oplev’s version is unrefined, it’s grimy and I’ll be bold to say in some instances, it’s more horrifying. Adding to that was Noomi Rapace’s riveting portrayal of Lisbeth Salander. She played her colder, more awkward, shy and much less assure of herself. Mara’s take on Lisbeth is equally fantastic, though has a little more warmth and takes more risks with her affection towards Mikael, an important difference that plays out in a much cleaner and more satisfying third act than the Swedish film.
Even though Fincher’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has its high marks, it is not perfect. It’s a little too polished. Daniel Craig too brings a different dynamic to the story. He actually looks like a man who could stare evil in the face and not flinch, whether it’s Wennerström or the film’s antagonist. Those are truly great attributes for an investigative reporter, but Craig doesn’t seem to have a hair out of place when he’s backed into a corner or is fighting for his life. He is suave and sharp enough to attract Berger, Salander (and Cecilia Vanger in the book)–maybe a little too suave? The villain says that people have a greater fear of offending others than the fear of pain. Craig’s Blomkvist displays too much of that.
One last complaint is the jarring opening song (a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O, Reznor, and Ross) and a beautiful but mismatched credits sequence that looked more appropriate for the next James Bond film. It took some time to come down from that opening and settle into the story’s restrained beginnings.
The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo doesn’t fall off or soar above the Swedish film, but it is the better of the two. They both do Larsson’s thriller justice, but they are noticeably different. Fincher and Zaillian’s ending is however much better, so much, that I wanted to passionately see what comes next for our protagonists. Craig and Mara are committed to the entire trilogy (The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) and that’s a win for the audience. I want to continue seeing how Mara makes Salander her own because what she’s created is a version of the complex character audiences will want to embrace, especially those losing their Lisbeth Salander virginity with this film.
Fincher though is not committed yet, and I can’t say I blame him. Fincher is probably wrestling with the idea of making two films that many already have seen or read before walking in. The element of surprise is gone for those already familiar, no matter the experience and this film will only do more to sell more of Larsson’s books, digital or print. First-timers will marvel at another masterpiece and while it may be difficult for fans of the Swedish film, that this is the definitive adaptation. We can only hope that Fincher returns to finish the trilogy to give those two novels similar treatment.
Fincher’s work on The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will always be overshadowed by his direction on such dark, cynical material like Se7en, Zodiac, and Fight Club. I worry about Fincher becoming the go-to director for serial murder thrillers but he has yet to fail at crafting these types of stories. But if he can find no good reasons to avoid them, I will make no apologies for enjoying them.