Serious credit is owed to the Sony Pictures marketing team behind David Fincher’s American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. With months of terrific trailers, artistic posters, and behind the scenes glimpses via the insiders blog Mouth Taped Shut, the anticipation for the release could not have been much higher. The publicity surrounding the film is precisely the reason that many people will ignore reviews and see it in their own state of mind. However, the marketing team might also be responsible for this writer’s lukewarm response. They were selling a revelatory and gritty piece of film art, but they delivered a comparatively standard police procedural. I am not going to stoop to calling the film “run of the mill,” because with David Fincher nothing ever is, but it certainly adds little to the canon of one of America’s finest auteurs.
Fincher’s film comes one year after Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish version of the Stieg Larsson novel made it to the states. The new edition acts more like a re-adaptation than a remake with a different narrative and thematic focus. While Oplev’s films focus on the sexual inequality in Sweden and the conflict of new ideologies on sex versus old, Fincher’s film is more interested in carrying on the themes that are prevalent through most of his work. Specifically the 2011 edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about the increasing free flow of information and the idea that our darkest secrets no longer belong only to ourselves.
This notion is present right from the opening credit sequence when we see a sparklingly clean visual effects display that depicts two figures being enveloped by oily computer cords. The segment is a visceral delicacy that might create too high of expectations for the upcoming narrative. Journalist Mikhael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been convicted of libel after falling into a trap set by corrupt businessman Hans Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). Approaching bottom, he resigns from Millenium Magazine, which he created with Erika Berger (Robin Wright) and travels north to the village of Hedestad for a bizarre job offer: a geriatric Swede Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) wants him to investigate his own family to discover the truth behind the decades old murder of his niece Harriet Vanger.
Parallel to Blomkvist’s narrative is that of biker/hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). As a freelancer for Milton Security she uses her computer skills to discover the innermost secrets of anyone she sets her sights upon, including Blomkvist. Due to her unusual social habits and proclivity towards aggression, she was declared Ward of the State as a teenager and assigned legal guardianship. Her abuse at the hands of her assigned guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) sets up the first major gender confrontation in the film and establishes Salander as the clever, but brutal truth-seeker we will come to know throughout the film.
Blomkvist calls on Salander to help with the investigation and the two become an unlikely detective team, representing old and new methods with the same goal in mind. Fincher depicts both characters as victims, although in drastically different ways, and gives them more redeeming qualities than previous versions of the story. For instance, in this film Blomkvist is not estranged from his teenage daughter and less apt to hop in bed with every major female character. We see less violence portrayed by Lisbeth and the few instances that occur are more than justified. It seems almost too willing to cater to the notion that American audiences need their protagonists to be likable.
Steve Zaillian’s screenplay stays quite faithful to Larsson’s novel and moves along at a break neck pace in the first act, ditching the tedium that bogged down the book, but also sacrificing some of the character development. The film has the tone of Fincher’s Zodiac and the pace of Seven, which shows exactly why Zodiac simply wouldn’t work if it had different pacing. The emphasis is on the visual storytelling, which certainly works in parts, but ultimately leaves a lot of the characters underdeveloped and lacking subtext.
Despite the underdeveloped characters, however, there is no denying that Fincher is a visual filmmaker of the highest order. During the Salander/Blomkvist parallel narrative, the cross-cutting is fantastic and recalls some of the most suspenseful moments in Zodiac (his best film, in my opinion). By showing one character in the grips of something drastic juxtaposed with another character doing something mundane, Fincher shows us the great dilemma of life: how can one person lie down while another human being is suffering?
This concept is applied specifically to the plight of women for this film and it becomes the driving force for Lisbeth Salander. She creates an instant contradiction by using illegal methods to solve a heinous murder as Fincher continues his investigation into the good and evil uses of technology. Ultimately, progress is victorious and we are left with numerous morality questions to ponder.
Rooney Mara steps into the role of Lisbeth Salander and, on the surface, is too pristine; like she is only hardcore because a Hollywood makeup professional spent hours making her look so. However, her performance nicely depicts a worldview that is uniquely Lisbeth’s, including a certain level of social misunderstanding. Daniel Craig is a much better casting choice for Blomkvist than Michael Nykvist was in the Swedish version, but the script gives him less opportunity to display his magnetic power over women.
Bottom Line: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo works better as a visual showcase for Fincher than a narrative film.