Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher

***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seems like an unusual project for David Fincher to take on. Hot on the heels of his success with The Social Network, Fincher plunged into the depths of the sordid tale of bisexual sociopath computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist and their hunt for a serial killer in the northern Swedish countryside, frozen by Arctic winds and isolation from the more cosmopolitan south. It was this kind of bloody-minded escapade that made Fincher’s name (Se7en remains his masterpiece), but there is also the matter of the Swedish-language adaptation that was released just two years before. Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth therein was seen as definitive and, though flawed, was seen as not warranting a remake (technically, it’s not a remake, but a fresh adaptation of the book). The odds are not in Fincher’s favour.

And yet…

… and yet, he is Fincher, one of American cinema’s modern masters. With his usual blend of style and fierce energy, he upgrades the rather bland visuals of Niels Arden Oplev’s original film whilst still preserving the plot, for better or worse. Following an opening credits sequence reminiscent of a James Bond title sequence, we see James Bond himself, Daniel Craig in the role of Blomqvist, leaving a courthouse after losing a defamation suit taken against him by wealthy industrialist Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). It’s strange to see the man who would be Bond in such a defeated state, yet there he is, reduced to taking leave from the magazine he co-edits (with his lover, played by Robin Wright) in order to escape. Except he’s not escaping; he’s going to work for retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and help him solve the mystery of the disappearance of his grand-niece some forty years previously. Meanwhile, Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is living her own brand of life in Stockholm; working as a professional investigator, being generally provocative and anti-social and being abused by her state-appointed custodian Bjurman (Yorick Von Wageningen). Credit to both Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) for not toning down the sexual violence of Larsson’s tome; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a decidedly uncomfortable watch. As Lisbeth suffers her abuses (and plots revenge), Blomqvist’s investigation of the eccentric Vanger family (including Stellan Skarsgård’s Martin and Joely Richardson’s Anita) exposes old wounds including Nazi sympathies, bitter feuds and abuse. The original Swedish title of the book was ‘Men Who Hate Women’, and this film is full of them. At its heart, however, is a woman who hates everyone, and Mara inhabits Lisbeth with a disconcerting blend of childlike frame and sheer ballsiness. Watching this brittle waif suffer is extremely uncomfortable, but seeing her exact revenge is just as horrific, if not more so. An avenging angel made flesh, Mara is riveting. Craig is convincing as an everyman-type, but both characters ultimately bloom when they finally team up to solve the Vanger mystery. They have a lot of information to cut through, and so do the audience.

Fincher and Zaillian may have kept the more horrific elements of Larsson’s story, but there’s always a feeling throughout Dragon Tattoo that they could have done some more fine-tuning on the script. Fincher has infamously wrangled with the studio over the length of Dragon Tattoo’s final cut, and the finished product (all 157 minutes of it) ends up suffering from the same overload of information that dogged the Swedish version. The depth of Zaillian’s overly-reverential script means there’s just about enough time to give every character his/her due. Fincher wanted a longer cut, but this could have rendered Dragon Tattoo a potential bore. On the other hand, we await a director’s cut that doesn’t reduce the likes of Goran Visnjic (as Lisbeth’s boss) or Embeth Davidtz (as Blomqvist’s sister) to cameos. What we do get, however, is a memorable whodunnit (think Agatha Christie with added torture and nipple piercings) which only really differs from the previous version in its punchier visuals and the change of language. Fans of the book now have two well-acted versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to choose from; either will suffice, since there’s so little difference between the two. Like the Swedish version, Fincher’s Girl is complex, imperfect (the final act, with a changed ending stretches patience.) and displays a uncompromising gusto, the sort that has been missing from mainstream Hollywood since the late 1970s. If a renaissance in R-rated mainstream drama is beginning in Hollywood, it’s off to a solid, though flawed, start.

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