Saturated in buzz since its announcement last year, David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s monstrously popular page turner The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo finally hits cinemas this week on the heels of a dazzling marketing campaign that dubs the film as the “feel-bad movie of the holiday season.” They aren’t kidding because this brooding, stylish film, the gutsiest big-budget studio production of the year, digs into some pretty twisted territory including brutal serial killings, rape, incest, Nazis – stuff that was also successfully mined in last year’s Swedish-language adaptation. Yet in spite of being a more technically proficient, expansive and stylish picture with a fearless performance from Rooney Mara, I remain partial to the Swedish film as the definite version of this story – primarily because while Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian commendably up the character interaction, they botch up the central plot itself.
Opening with a blistering credits sequence – the most ferocious I’ve seen in a film this year – Dragon Tattoo is about two wildly different adults who through circumstance find themselves working together to investigate a 40-year-old unsolved mystery. Hard-hitting reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been convicted for libel against an industry tycoon. With his reputation in tatters, Blomkvist reluctantly takes a job offer by aging businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who hires him to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his niece Harriet. As Blomkvist digs deeper, he stumbles onto something far more alarming – a group of grisly murders tracing back to the Vanger family.
While Blomkvist is solving the mystery, we’re simultaneously introduced to Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a prodigious computer hacker/research analyst who has spent the bulk of her life in the care of state-assigned guardians. Though adorned with tattoos, piercings and always dressed in black, the introverted Lisbeth isn’t much of an intimidating figure, that is, until she’s cornered. When she’s threatened, as she is in what is the film’s most harrowing scene, she unleashes a feral side so horrifying, you’ll never forget her.
Blomkvist’s path eventually collides with Lisbeth’s – an hour and a half into this very long film (it runs 2hrs, 45 mins.) – when he seeks an assistant to speed up his investigation. It’s from here that Fincher, assisted by Trent Reznor & Atticus Rose’s chilly score, and Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall’s sharp editing, begins to shift gears, building momentum to a shocking climax. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the film’s Achilles Heel too as Zaillian’s script bizarrely falls off-track to focus on an unwarranted and unconvincing romance between the two characters. When Fincher and Zaillian do return to the investigation, they do so grudgingly – skimming over vital details that would have allowed the audience to discover the mystery themselves. Because of this, the eventual reveal is significantly robbed off its impact. Worse, they awkwardly tag on an unnecessary epilogue that dilutes the film’s crescendo. By the time it ends, all that’s left is a whimper, leaving me scratching my head asking “what went wrong?”
Fincher, one of our finest filmmakers, is renowned for his dark and unsympathetic view of society as evidenced in his four masterpieces Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and last year’s The Social Network. Dragon Tattoo is unmistakably Fincher but from the moment Blomkvist & Salander meet, you get the sense that he was more interested in these characters than the story itself. I don’t blame him – the potboiler plot is the least interesting aspect of this story. Still, the plot is the playground for these characters to play in so if it’s shoddily constructed, then that affects everything that happens on it, great characters or not. Even with its problems, there’s lot to admire here. The earlier portions of the film revolving around Blomkvist’s investigations are magnetic. This could be one of the first American films in which protagonists solve an entire case using their computers. Fincher also masterfully crosscuts between Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s stories effortlessly without us missing a beat, perfectly building to their first meeting. Frequent Fincher collaborator Jeff Cronenweth’s moody cinematography takes full advantage of the icy yet stunning Swedish vistas.
Mara, who had the unenviable task of filling in the shoes of Noomi Rapace, iconic in the Swedish films, does the unthinkable – like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, she actually tops her predecessor’s famous performance to create something wholly original. Her Lisbeth is a more internal creature who relies more on her body language than dialogue to communicate. As expected of Fincher, this interpretation of Lisbeth is dirtier, tougher and rawer. It’s a fearless performance from the young actress and she deserves props for her bravery – especially in the extremely demanding sex scenes. In comparison to Mara, Craig barely registers. He’s fine but he’s not asked to do much so he doesn’t. He’s obviously having fun but I wished there was more to him. Also, was it too much to ask to at least attempt a Swedish accent?
David Fincher’s films tend to be meticulously crafted and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no exception. This stylishly shot remake/second adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s popular novel benefits from Fincher’s masterful hand and his impeccable team of collaborators as well as a bravura performance from Rooney Mara who delivers a performance superior to Noomi Rapace. Despite this, the film doesn’t work as a whole since the crux of the plot – the film’s murder mystery – is mismanaged. Yes, it’s a film that bears the footprints of a master but that of one cashing in a paycheck.