The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Quite the improvement on the original, but can’t quite top the book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about a famed Swedish journalist who finds his reputation tarred and feathered when he loses a high-profile legal battle against a billionaire industrialist. After resigning from his up-and-coming publication, he receives an unexpected call from a Swedish business tycoon requesting his presence at once. He visits the old man and is promptly given a proposition despite having no prior experience as a criminal investigator or ever having watched a single episode of CSI: Stockholm: to find out which of his potential employer’s family members murdered his great-niece some 30 years prior. With time to kill and the promise of a big fat payday even if he comes up empty-handed, he takes the job. With the assistance of a right-hand woman who could hack her way into the Pentagon with the effort it takes me to remember my Facebook password, the unlikely crime-solving duo start unearthing a tomb of secrets that some close by are trying very hard to keep buried.
Before we begin, go read the book if you haven’t already. I know, I know, not the best way to kick things off and I can feel your eyes rolling from here. I promise this won’t be a “book vs. movie” review, but having read it myself and having seen the original Swedish adaptation, I’m glad I was in the know. For those who aren’t, get ready for a doozie. The first reason you should read the book is that it will result in a literary addiction similar to what crackheads feel when Santa brings them their very first rock and pipe for Christmas (because I’m totally an authority on the matter.) The second reason is that it’s roughly 600 pages long, it’s jam-packed with more characters, details, and information than you can shake a stick at, and since all of it is vital to the story and overall experience, there’s just no way to cram it all into a 158-minute span.
That was one of the problems with the Swedish movie: not having a firmer grasp on who to flesh out and what to spend time on. This is not one of the problems with the remake. Writer Steven Zaillian does a fine job of whittling the dialogue down to a bare minimum while adding a healthy dose of character in the process, but this movie belongs to David Fincher. As far as selective editing and intentional film making is concerned, Fincher’s a goddamn assembly line. Every last scene is here for a reason, and as soon as its purpose is fulfilled, it goes right along to the next one without skipping a beat or wasting a breath. Reading that back, this might sound like one big episode of The West Wing with the fast-forward button held down, but that’s far from the reality of it. As one of my friends put it (a Fincher fanboy of the highest order, not that I’m any different,) David Fincher is a director who knows exactly what he’s doing, and it won’t take long with this movie before you realize the truth of that statement.
The upsides of this approach are that it allows for a lot of information to be packed into a short frame of time, it moves things along at a breakneck pace which transforms it from a talking heads movie into a full-blown thriller, and it makes you pay attention. The downsides of this approach are that it gives you a lot of information in a short from of time, it conveys a lot of the clues and developments through inference and things unsaid, and it’s unforgiving if you bought a ticket just because you liked the booby poster. If I were going into this movie blind or with the same mindset that led me to Ghost Protocol, I think I’d be tearing my hair out. But that’s not the kind of book Stieg Larsson wrote, and that’s not the movie Fincher’s made. There’s an ass-kicker of a story to be told here, and if you can’t keep up, it’s kind of your own fault as cold as that may sound. Then again, that only seems fitting for the emotionally frigid movie that this is.
Although as incredibly effective as his direction is, I wish he had taken his time a bit more often. When he does, it makes for some scenes that’ll stall your lungs before knocking the wind out for good measure. There isn’t much room for baited tension in this movie, and that’s too bad considering this is David Fincher, a dude who knows some shit about baiting tension before we can realize there’s a hook through our cheek. But when it’s there, it’s fantastic, and it’s also worth mentioning that he’s given us the best opening credits sequence of the year that looks like something straight out of the gnarliest of Nine Inch Nails videos.
But Fincher aside, the biggest selling point of this movie is far and away the one role that every girl with daddy issues would have killed for and then some: Lisbeth Salander. When I saw Rooney Mara in The Social Network, I didn’t see a badass bitch with the scars and piercings to prove it. I don’t think anyone saw it, but here she is looking like the bastard love child of Mudvayne and Powder, and she freaking destroys. There’s a good reason this movie isn’t called The Man with the Libel Conviction, and it’s the same reason everyone but the Academy went so ape over Noomi Rapace these past couple years. Lisbeth is one tempest of a character, she’s beyond eccentric compared to the rest of the cast, and it’s always great to see tough female characters who run the show with gusto and take pleasure in putting the opposite sex in their place. Hard to say whether she trumps Rapace, but this is one seriously demanding role and she goes all out with it. Would be pretty darn shocked if she didn’t walk away with some wins come February, ’cause she earned ’em.
Even so, this movie isn’t about Lisbeth Salander, it’s actually about our disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, regardless of the title. My biggest complaint about the Swedish version is the way Blomkvist and all his complexities were so blatantly put on the back burner so as not to take the spotlight away from Lisbeth. From the outset, Blomkvist has the immediate appeal of wet clothes against the backdrop of Rooney Mara’s mohawk, but the truth of the matter is that Blomkvist is every bit as interesting as his punked-out partner. I mean, it takes a long time for Blomkvist and Salander to start working together, they’ve got a lot going on in their respective lives outside of the murder mystery, so it’s really nice to see that Zallian and Fincher gave each of them their due both before and after they team up. And while he never stood a chance at upstaging Mara, this is still Daniel Craig’s best role since Casino Royale.
Also bizarre seeing Yorick Van Wageningen go from a jolly Dutchman named Joost in The Way to Lisbeth’s scumbag mother-effer of a legal guardian. Talk about night and day, but the role suits him disturbingly well.
And lastly there’s the score from the almighty Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross which is as good as it already sounds. Currently undecided as to whether their involvement here works as well as it did in The Social Network, but it’s nevertheless a perfect complement to the tone of the movie. So many haunting, gorgeous tracks here, especially the few that sound like Trent slamming keys in the grand ballroom of an abandoned castle. You’ll get it when you hear it, or you could just be the man/woman and buy the three-disc soundtrack prontosaurus.
As much as I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and as impressed as I am by how well Fincher handled it, I still can’t help but feel a bit lackluster about it all. This is the third time I’ve heard the story, and I don’t know if it was a story I needed to hear three times. Some of the story’s greatest strengths lie in its ruthless unpredictability and giving the reader an outrageously wide berth to put the pieces together, so when you know every road that the plot’s gonna take, you start hoping for the detours. Although I did appreciate some of the more subtle liberties that Zaillian took with the source material, like an unexpected turn of events towards the end, ignoring the prison sentence Blomkvist has to serve, and skipping over all the time he spends writing his book against the guy who put him there. Also nice to see more time spent on key players and less time spent on the two dozen family members who are all potential suspects, even if it might make the mystery a bit easier to unravel.
God, this is an easy movie to ramble about, time to wrap it up. If you’ve never taken the trip, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as wild, rough, and memorable as they come. If you’ve been here before, it might be familiar, but by the same token, that might just be me. As a devoted worshiper at the church of Reznor and someone who’s been Fincher-crazy since I figured out what the fuck was in the fuckin’ box, it’s hard to deny this movie a recommendation with everything it does so well.
But do yourself a favor, read the book first.