The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (**)

Maybe it was impossible to actually justify the talent and resources involved in this project.  Maybe there was just no way that any faithful adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s depressingly overrated novel would ever be anything more than, shall we say, problematic to me.  Still, I come to you with what might be the most positive review I will ever write for a two-star film, as David Fincher’s adaptation/remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far better than I had anticipated, and I must take back some of what I originally predicted would become of it.  Its connection to the source material is still an albatross, make no mistake, but some smart filmmaking craftsmanship and humor elevate it to at least the level of passable lurid pulp.

The premise is by now well-known: Mikael Blomkvist (aka Stieg Larsson’s own Tyler Durden), fresh off of a libel conviction that will most likely bankrupt his polemical magazine Millennium, receives a mysterious offer from former Vanger Corporation CEO Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance and likely murder of his niece Harriet.  Despite not having seen her for forty years, he still receives one framed flower every year on his birthday (once again he doesn’t track down where the packages are coming from, though at least Steven Zaillian’s script tries to give that a semi-credible explanation this time). Henrik firmly believes that they are being sent not only by the killer, but that her murderer is a member of his own rotten family, who all – a little too conveniently – live on a single snowbound island.  After making a breakthrough, Mikael requests a research assistant.

Enter Lisbeth Salander (aka the only character anyone really cares about), the pierced, tattooed and aloof young woman who investigated Blomkvist is having troubles of her own.  Her lenient legal guardian has suffered a stroke and she’s swiftly put under the custody of a sexually abusive pig who takes control of her finances and demands sexual favors in exchange for money.  Without going into the whole spiel of the prologue, fate unites both Blomkvist and Salander to find Harriet’s killer and wind up investigating a web of gruesomely misogynist, anti-Semitic serial killings.

This leads me to the first major problem that I have always had with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and that’s that the main plot takes way too long to actually get going.  We spend an awful lot of time wallowing in Blomkvist’s legal woes and Salander’s abuse and subsequent revenge set-ups that reveal less about these characters than the time spent on the first act should provide us, with the result of having this inordinately lengthy movie about half an hour longer than it should have been.  Luckily, Fincher does his best to at least not make it seem as plodding as Niels Arden Oplev’s farrago, giving it the same fleet-footed pacing that has made the best of his films really click.  I suppose if he “had to” work with a screenplay loyal to the book, he did the best he could to not bore us to death in doing so.

David Fincher: always up for awesome visuals

Indeed, nearly every scene of this remake is tighter, meatier, and more visually arresting than the Swedish version.  Whatever criticisms some may have of Fincher’s cold-blooded aesthetic, he is undeniably one of the most competent American directors working today.  His use of image, edits and sound continually kept me surprised and engaged even when I instinctively knew that they were in the service of trash.  Jeff Cronenweth’s photography bathes the film in a sickly, almost jaundiced color palette, perfectly in tune with its queasy subject matter.  Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall almost match their Oscar-winning achievement of last year with some creative cutting, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross actually manage to top their own Academy Award-winning score by piling on to the uneasiness permeating The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a score that is equal parts nuanced, aggressive and haunting.  Reznor has always been praised and at times scorned by music critics for using noise as a hostile, assaulting force, and rarely has this been more apt than here.  Before I bust on this film’s broken story – and goddamn you better believe I’ll bust it up – the craftsmanship in putting this project together is top-notch.

Zaillian’s reinterpretation ends up a wash overall, improving the story in some ways while also making it worse in others while failing to address the biggest problems of the narrative.  Many of the plot holes that I originally noted in my takedown of the Swedish version are at least partially covered up if still stretching credulity, and the buzzed-about changed ending works much better compared to the original ending, concluding on a badly-needed empathic note and actually recognizing Blomkvist as a bit of a feckless asshole as opposed to the Journalist James Bond fantasy that Larsson no doubt intended.  However, Zaillian also creates just as many problems with his alterations as solutions.  Probably the most glaring error he makes is trying to tighten up the story by reducing our interactions with the various members of the Vanger clan to only about three.  This, combined with the casting of a reliably slimy character actor in a major part, makes it painfully obvious Who The Real Killer Is and destroying at least the faint sense of genuine mystery that its predecessor tried to maintain. In a move that almost baffles me; he also decides to spend less time with Mikael and Lisbeth onscreen together, and their chemistry is arguably when both of them are at their most interesting.  Spending most of the running time separated not only makes their flat, clichéd characterizations more glaring, but makes it highly unrealistic when the script quite abruptly decides that Lisbeth should fall in love with her partner.  Daniel Craig and the much-ballyhooed Rooney Mara don’t rise above this, though I’m not sure their roles ever allow them to.  Mara, despite diving into the physical demands of this part with aplomb, either from outside pressure or her own reservations does not divulge enough from Noomi Rapace’s interpretation of the character to really call it her own.

Did Mara let down the role, or did the role let her down?

But I never felt as though Lisbeth Salander ever deserved such actorly commitment or her status as a cultural phenomenon in the first place.  She’s the type of character that mainstream readers/viewers can congratulate themselves for being invested in with minimal effort: possessing enough emotional hang-ups to be labeled “complex” but no credible flaws that require her to actualize herself or go through a meaningful arc.  We’re told constantly how damaged she is, but that doesn’t stop her from being the ideal masculinist female hero.  She’s a computer hacker wiz (the kind that only exists in the movies), kicks ass, doesn’t express her feelings and is sexually uninhibited.  She is, in essence, not a “strong woman” so much as what men would like to imagine strong women to be.  David Simon, creator of the greatest TV drama of all time, had a name for the Lisbeth Salanders of fiction: “Men with tits.”

Which is the iceberg in this whole voyage.  For all of this story’s railing about the status of women in our world, it never communicated to me any desire to explore what it actually means to be a woman in a brutal, male-dominated society.  It is well-known by this point that Larsson’s novel is not called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden, but Men Who Hate Women, and whose main purpose was to shed light on the horrible misogynistic violence and cruelty perpetrated against women.  But…what about horrible misogynistic violence and cruelty perpetrated against women?  Simply declaring it exists doesn’t cut it in this day and age, and refashioning it as a shaggy whodunit is just sleazy.  Fincher and Zaillian’s heightening of the Swedish film’s voyeuristic sadism only compounds this; claiming to be disgusted by brutality against innocent women before diving headfirst into it as shock entertainment.

While I am grateful that Fincher put his unique spin on what may be the most thrilling, stylish piece of trash this year, I do wonder why he even bothered with it.  He explored religion and cruelty with a lot more emotional resonance in Se7en, and the ripple effects of serial murder more adroitly in Zodiac.  Perhaps he was trying to unwind after his previous two serious-minded efforts and simply wanted to indulge in some cheap (but thankfully not ineffective) kicks.  In this case, he did his part: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not intelligent, or feminist, or deep, or groundbreaking, and it’s certainly not a masterpiece…but it is something, and I’m more than happy to settle for that.

Be sure to check out my colleague Joey Magidson’s more positive take here, and let us know which side of the film you fall on in the comments!