The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher's latest bests the Swedish original

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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Directed by David Fincher. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter. Written by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson.

The makers of this US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, penned by Steven Zaillian from the popular novel by Stieg Larsson, were faced with a near-impossible task: creating something new from material that had already been effectively brought to the screen in the 2009 Swedish film from director Niels Arden Oplev, which introduced counterculture heroine Lisbeth Salander to many and launched actress Noomi Rapace into stardom.

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If anyone is up to the task, however, it’s director David Fincher, coming off 2010’s The Social Network and returning to the serial killer thriller. It’s a genre that he has helped define during the past two decades with two of his best films, Se7en and Zodiac.

Zodiac, which I consider to be Fincher’s masterpiece, was a very different beast: the real-life, disturbingly unresolved story of the Zodiac Killer, in which investigators follow leads and turn up with nothing but questions. By contrast, while the original Dragon Tattoo opens with a mesmerizing first hour that introduces its characters and story, I became increasingly disinterested by the mystery-thriller-cliché Scooby Doo plotting that overtakes the second half of the film.

In short, despite the millions Stieg Larsson fans that may tell me otherwise, the material is weak. This wasn’t something that would be easy for Fincher to overcome. But he does: from the moment we see the brilliant black oil opening credits sequence, we know this is something special.

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That’s good, because the plot indicates something else entirely. Viewers of the 2009 film will know what to expect here; storywise, there are few derivations. Daniel Craig stars as Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium magazine co-owner and reporter who has just been prosecuted for libel by businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. Rooney Mara is the new Lisbeth Salander, troubled but razor-sharp hacker/private investigator who has been performing a background check on Blomkvist.

The background check is for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), retired CEO who lives on an island estate with his estranged family, including nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), who currently runs the Vanger Industries. Henrik wants Blomkvist to investigate the decades-old unsolved murder of his niece, Harriet. He’s convinced the murderer is a member of the family.

Mikael reluctantly accepts the assignment, and brings along Salander to help him with the investigation. And there’s clue-aha!-clue-aha! as we follow that familiar mystery plotting used in everything from Scream to Harry Potter, until the killer is unmasked and exclaims that he would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those darn kids; bonus points if he ties up the hero and, instead of killing him, reveals the master plan.

The source material hangs over the film like an albatross, threatening to drag it down at any point. We know where this is going not because we’ve seen the earlier film, or read the novel, but because we’ve seen all these clichés a thousand times before.

But here’s the thing: not a big fan of earlier film, I knew all this going in. And Zaillian and Fincher, apparently, weren’t huge fans of the plotting, either: they seem almost disinterested in the overly-familiar mystery. Instead, they place a much greater focus on the characters, and that helps the strong first half carry through to the rest of the movie. The relationship between Blomkvist and Salander is the heart of the film, and much more affecting this time around.

And then – story aside – there’s everything else about the movie, which is an absolutely first-rate production, surprisingly reserved and calculated given the salacious material (excepting the early rape scenes, which are pretty relentless). Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth perfectly captures the isolation of the harsh Swedish locales; this movie is cold to the touch. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – starting off with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song – is note-perfect.

Craig does some fine work here, but the film belongs to Mara’s Salander, and should do for her what the original did for Rapace. It’s pointless to compare the two, but Mara takes the role and makes it her own; her interpretation of the character, in many ways, defines the film.

In his version of Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher has taken familiar material, mined it for all it’s worth, and managed to churn out something fresh and exciting that flies by despite a runtime of over 2.5 hours. Ultimately, this film is the anti-Zodiac – unreal and unnaturally resolved – but it’s grim, gripping, and especially worthwhile pulp.

Also opening this week:

  • Love (showtimes), a drama from director Jakub Kroner starring Michal Nemtuda, Kristína Svarinská, Jakub Gogál, and Dušan Cinkota. Screening in Czech.
  • Labyrint (showtimes), a thriller from Tomáš Houška starring Lucie Vondráčková, Martin Zbrožek, Jan Zadražil. Screening in Czech.
  • If Not Us, Who? (showtimes | IMDb), a German period drama starring August Diehl. Screening in German with Czech subtitles.

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