The subject matter may not scream “Happy Holidays!” but Santa brought discerning movie fans a terrific – if dark – gift in the form of the gloomy, atmospheric Hollywood adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While the subject matter is not exactly family fare, dealing as it does with rape, torture, mutilation and murder, film fans will appreciate the artistry that went into it, and the film should do better if it stays in theaters through the long, dark winter months.
The film was released already freighted with some pretty heavy baggage. First there were the high expectations for A-list director David Fincher tackling the late Stieg Larsson’s international best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” of novels. And then there was the backlash: “How dare Hollywood remake a Swedish movie?” Well, Fincher and co. have done a damn fine job proving that this story needed to be filmed again.
This movie has been hobbled by the recent audience backlash against any and all remakes, no matter how well done. Fincher’s interpretation of the story deserves to be seen — not just because the Swedish version is, in my opinion, overrated (except for Noomi Rapace’s performance as the titular girl) — because it stands on its own as a faithful adaptation of a dense novel, not merely as a remake of a good (but not great) foreign movie.
Set in Sweden, the story begins with Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced investigative journalist, being hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to look into a very cold case — the mysterious death of teenager Harriet Vanger some 40 years earlier. While investigating, Blomkvist unearths the twisted history of the wealthy and thoroughly demented Vanger clan and hires a research assistant named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Lisbeth is an antisocial, pierced and tattooed computer hacker with a photographic memory and a family history she’d rather forget. She is a ward of the state, beholden to her sleazy legal guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) who demands sexual favors in return for allowing her access to her blocked bank accounts. When he cruelly pushes Lisbeth too far, she strikes back with cleverness and jaw-dropping, terrible ferociousness. Meanwhile, her computer sleuthing skills uncover a link between Harriet and a series of depraved murders in the 1940s and ‘50s — as well as evidence that leads back to the decadent Vanger family and suggests Harriet’s death may not be what it seems to be….
Fincher’s direction is smooth, and he manages to keep the momentum of the movie moving forward, even when most of the “action” takes place behind computer keyboards. Fincher skillfully pulls off the absolutely brutal assault that is the centerpiece of the film and Lisbeth’s major motivation. The rape scene is intense and raw, without being exploitive. The tableaux are as cold as the Scandinavian landscape, making the low-hanging clouds and snow-covered locales as forbidding as Fincher’s bleak, rain-soaked cityscape in Se7en. Call it “bright noir.”
However, as great as Fincher’s work is, the behind-the-camera standout achievement is Steve Zaillian’s screenplay adaptation — which is nothing short of magnificent. Larsson’s book is an endlessly rambling, lugubrious text, but this screenplay is a marvel of pruning that chips away the excess exposition and myriad subplot digressions while still retaining the sense that exhaustive, painstaking research is the key to the Harriet mystery. The script is more a case of simplification rather than reimagining the story. In one of the best examples, pages and pages of tedious genealogy are replaced by a couple of photos and a snarky remark, yet the audience knows the entire Vanger family tree was charted.
The Swedish screenplays were actually a weakness, since they cut the plot to the bone at the expense of context — especially in the second and third movies. I got the sense that the Swedish screenwriters were told to include specific moments, which they dutifully pasted into the screenplay and then moved on to the next scene without bothering to add any connective tissue. Zaillian made sure to cement scenes together. Additionally, the Swedes altered the Blomkvist character in a terrible way that made him completely unsympathetic to me, as a professional journalist. Zaillian vastly simplifies Blomkvist’s situation, but the character retains the moral high ground that a hero needs. And while simplification was Zaillian’s goal, there is a major story alteration from the book at the very end, but the alteration makes sense and doesn’t harm the film.
In front of the camera, this is Rooney Mara’s movie from start to finish. She is by turns sullen and savage, withdrawn and fierce, demure and wanton, victim and victimizer. It’s a role that has “Oscar” written all over it for the right actress, and Mara lives up to the potential. She makes Lisbeth’s wide-ranging mood swings feel believable, not like bad writing. Mara is undeniably brave, surrendering herself to portraying the horrors Lisbeth endures, and the actress agreed to replicate Lisbeth’s various piercings for real. She manifests Lisbeth’s smoldering rage and violent outbursts, and deftly handles the quieter moments, as when Lisbeth recounts a childhood trauma to Blomkvist. Finally, the way Mara internalizes Lisbeth’s anguish holds promise for the planned sequels.
Part of the reason that Mara rules the screen is that Craig seems determined to remain in her shadow as he differentiates the paunchy Blomkvist from the suave James Bond by completely shying away from any and all action. Blomkvist is better with words than people, and I had no trouble believing Craig as a journalist. He plays the frumpy Blomkvist as curious but reluctant; a dogged researcher and definitely not a man of action. When a gun is fired, Blomkvist immediately springs into action — by running away! That’s the right move in the real world, but it’s not the stuff of cinematic heroes. In fact, Blomkvist is the most passive film hero in years. But luckily for him (and moviegoers) Lisbeth is around, and she fights with the fire and determination of a dragon.