Before we ask whether or not The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo should have been remade or not, we must first acknowledge that anymore, this is the way things are simply going to be. In the case of Dragon Tattoo, not only was there a successful 2009 Swedish film franchise that had just been introduced to American audiences in 2010, but Dragon Tattoo was the first book in a multi-million selling trilogy by the late author Steig Larsson. As controversial as the source material remains after first being published in 2005 (the first book was originally entitled “Men Who Hate Women”), people are simply drawn to the harsh and unrelenting mysteries centering around Lisbeth Salander and “The Millennium Trilogy” of posthumous Larsson novels.
In 2009, the original film series introduced the world to three groundbreaking and captivating performances from Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, a mid-20s goth punk with a stunning investigative intuition, genius-level computer skills, and a horrific upbringing which haunts her decisions, damages her trusting mechanism, and makes her fiercely independent. Rapace’s performance earned worldwide acclaim and launched her onto the radar of A-list directors and producers, eager to work with the talented actress. As the Swedish films were released one after the other in North America in 2010, producer Scott Rudin secured the rights to remake the films for American audiences. Scoring director David Fincher to helm the first film in the series, a wide net was cast to find the next Lisbeth Salander. A whole host of noteworthy actresses auditioned and were considered; however, Fincher was impressed with one woman above any other…Rooney Mara. Mara had worked some in independent productions and until The Social Network came along, had seen her highest profile come in the ill-advised Nightmare On Elm Street remake from the spring of 2010. Mara turned heads and drew major attention, and small Oscar buzz, portraying Erica Albright, the woman who was every bit the verbal match opposite Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in the still impressive opening scene in Fincher’s Oscar-winning film.
Mara is in a bit of a thankless spot as Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander because savvy moviegoers, and those who happened upon the original films, will only want to see Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. I, for one, was in the same boat and saw no reason why this project had any reason to exist in the first place. Similar to how I reacted to the American remake of another Swedish film, Let The Right One In, the whole endeavor felt insulting and pandering. And as I acknowledge that, I still remember being stunned and slightly in awe of that breathtaking first trailer for Fincher’s take on the material. One of the finest teasers of recent memory, I caught it before a screening of X-Men: First Class and there was no green screen preview card, no warning whatsoever. It just happened. With Trent Reznor and Karen O assaulting the senses with a remake of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, a barrage of images flew past the viewer with dizzying intensity. As soon as it ended, someone loudly uttered a profanity in slack-jawed amazement and excitement. I am sure I uttered the same phrase in my head too.
So now it is December 2011 and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo returns to the screen and David Fincher has not remade the original film per se; rather reinterpreting Niels Arden Oplev’s take on the Steig Larsson novel. Similarities naturally occur between the two films but Fincher has taken pained efforts to fashion his film as its own creation and succeeds largely in that regard. I placed the original version of this film in my 2010 Top 10 list (#7) and I have it marked as a film you absolutely should see. While I am slightly less enamored with this interpretation, David Fincher has nonetheless crafted a tantalizing film, unflinching in its violence and brutality, wittier and more measured, and centered and anchored by a fantastic lead performance by Rooney Mara.
For those unfamiliar with the complex mystery which lies at the heart of this installment of the trilogy, the basic version of the story goes something like this. A wealthy patriarch, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has been the recipient of a framed flower for the last 40 years, received on the anniversary of the disappearance and suspected death of his niece, Harriet. Henrik has reached out to disgraced publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who is returning to his investigative magazine Millennium after a scandal nearly ended his illustrious career. Unbeknownst to Mikael, he is already on the radar of Henrik as Henrik and his attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) have had Blomkvist investigated in depth by Lisbeth Salander.
Blomkvist is contacted and after a meeting with Henrik, who offers him a financial deal he cannot refuse, Mikael turns over the day-to-day operations to his married girlfriend and creative director of Millennium, Erika (Robin Wright), and agrees to relocate to the private island Henrik and the Vanger family inhabit. Officially Mikael is introduced as someone working with Henrik on his memoirs. In actuality, Henrik has brought Mikael in as a last-ditch attempt to try and crack the mysteries surrounding Harriet’s disappearance once and for all. Soon Mikael has moved into a cottage on the Vanger property, braving the cold of winter, in an effort to interview as many Vanger family members as possible to try and determine what connections, tenuous or sturdy, happen to exist and relate to that tragic day 40 years previously.
As Mikael begins his investigation, he is made aware of Lisbeth and her connections to him. Forcing the issue, he meets her unceremoniously and after an awkward first few minutes, Lisbeth impresses Mikael. Soon, the steps are put in motion for Lisbeth and Mikael to work together and try and crack the unresolved and untenable case that has destroyed and decimated a family for decades.
If you are at all familiar with Larsson’s novel and/or the original film, this only barely scratches the surface of what is housed within the walls of this story. While Fincher has strived to make this film stand alone and to the side of its predecessor, the inevitable similarities come into play. Intriguingly, Fincher emphasizes elements of the story that Neils Arden Oplev did not and vice versa. Fincher stays more true to the book’s ultimate conclusion which is a curious choice when seeing where Oplev opted to end his installment. Above all else, Fincher is simply too talented and too good a filmmaker to let this film fall apart or suffocate under its own weight. At 160 minutes, Fincher may be difficult to reign in with his far-reaching all inclusive take on the material, but the film seldom drags and is also pulsing with excitement.
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who earlier this year penned a terrific screenplay with Fincher’s Oscar-winning Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin, handles the complexities and the layers of this story quite well. Zaillian delays the meeting of Lisbeth and Mikael, plays more in establishing Mikael’s relationship with his girlfriend, Erica, and initially offers the captivating Mara incarnation of Lisbeth in fits and starts. Zaillian also shows us a somewhat caring side of Lisbeth early on here, which in all honesty felt like an Americanized way of giving us someone we can root for (ugh…) and plays with our emotions in a different tone when we learn and meet Lisbeth’s depraved fiduciary guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).
Rooney Mara is fearless and brave and deservedly should become a huge star after this performance; one which may go on to define her career. Daniel Craig puts the James Bondisms away and breathes some new life into the Mikael character. Christopher Plummer is wonderful as Henrik and the other supporting performances, including Stellan Skarsgard as Martin Vanger, CEO of Vanger Enterprises and Henrik’s great-nephew, are all well acted and noteworthy. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross offer another score worthy of Oscar consideration, as they play with the conventions of what a movie score should be. Mixing in ambient sound and noise, with haunting and meditative music, Reznor and Ross’ contribution is always present and never in the way. An observer to the situations happening on screen, no different than we are. Jeff Cronenworth, Oscar nominated for The Social Network, may score a second consecutive Oscar nomination for his cinematography, framing many shots like photographs and playing with lighting and atmosphere wonderfully.
As one might expect there is a lot of grist for the mill when it comes to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and while bittersweet for me personally, millions of people will see this David Fincher film as their first cinematic impression of the Steig Larsson bestseller. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig will be this audience’s Lisbeth and Mikael and that is fine. While I wish that Steven Zaillian’s script was tighter in places and a significant confrontation scene between Mikael and a suspected murderer had the unsettling anxiety it deserves, I can nonetheless report that David Fincher has made a masterful film. His Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is rightfully unflinching and while it did not stun and silence me nearly as much as Oplev’s film did, I was nonetheless impressed. I still may bristle at the necessity of this film’s existence, but I remain impressed by it all and the same.