After months of hype and wondering how it was going to stack up to both the book and the perfectly fine Swedish movie that came before it, we’ve finally been given David Fincher‘s American adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As expected, it’s a fine piece of filmmaking. But, ultimately, was it really necessary to make this movie?
Stieg Larsson’s novel is, in the words of director Fincher himself, a “rip-roaring yarn.” Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced journalist who’s just lost his reputation and life savings after being sued for libel by a shady businessman whose past he didn’t prod intricately enough. Given a leave of absence by his leftist magazine, Millennium, Blomkvist accepts a strange freelance assignment by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, classy as always): Write his family’s bizarre and lurid history (a clan made up of Nazi sympathizers, alcoholics and other desirable types) — and find out what happened to his niece, who disappeared some 40 years prior. Blomkvist is soon assisted by a brilliant computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, the film’s MVP), the eponymous young goth whose striking appearance and seemingly asocial personality hides a fiery passion — and a hatred for evildoers, particularly those who inflict harm upon women like her rapist guardian who really should’ve kept his hands to himself (Yorick van Wageningen).
It’s a terrific story, and most certainly cinematic. The film opens with a razzle-dazzle credit sequence that reminds one of the fractured look into John Doe’s fevered brain that opened Fincher’s Se7en as Karen O and Trent Reznor cover Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (you heard it in the first trailer) over disturbing fetishistic images. From there, Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth create one of the coldest-feeling movie since John Carpenter’s The Thing as Blomkvist and Salander investigate a trail of brutally murdered women through bleak, wintry Sweden, pausing every now and then to comb through a hacked hard drive or engage in stress-relieving sex (and element of their relationship that never quite rang true in the book and seems even more out of place here). This labyrinthian tale is told with Fincher’s usual technical prowess and highly disciplined attention to storytelling detail — it’s a nasty, grungy tale told slickly and eloquently, an approach that ends up being nowhere near as contradictory as it sounds.
And yet, as well-acted (for the most part), well-shot and well-directed as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, you can’t help but shake the feeling that there’s really no reason for it to exist. The book has been read by almost everyone on the planet, and the Swedish film did an efficient job of bringing it to life, albeit in a much more pulpy and crass sort of way (which worked just as well as Fincher’s artful elegance). So what does this new version bring to the table other than getting rid of all those annoying subtitles that we Americans hate so much?
Not much at all, really — as well-made (and pretty) as this American Girl is, it also seems by-the-numbers to anyone even vaguely familiar with the story — and, indeed, with Fincher’s own body of work. While the director of Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac and even The Social Network (this film embraces young tech geeks, too) is the obvious choice to call the shots on this kind of material, it might also be too obvious — it’s like Martin Scorsese doing The Departed, which also had a vague air of redundancy to it… and more than a little self-parody.
However, this Girl definitely has at least one unique ace up its sleeve, and that’s the Girl herself. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Rooney Mara, and you’ll miss her terribly in the scenes she’s not in. While everyone else seems to be delivering perfectly crafted and nuanced performances (except for the oddly distracted Craig), Mara’s is completely unpredictable in its wild energy and seething fury. She’s truly fascinating, whether she’s lashing out or hiding behind a stoic silence — and she does more with a blank stare than most can with a Shakespearean monologue. If we’re going to eventually get American versions of both The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (and we probably will), then Mara getting to play Lisbeth Salander again is the main reason to look forward to them.
Ultimately, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an entertaining, engaging and skillful piece of filmmaking. You just might wish that the filmmakers hadn’t made a film that feels so familiar on so many levels.