Movie Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

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“Is it better than the Swedish film?” That’s the question everybody’s asking. I’d rather judge David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as its own thing, but you can’t really help comparing the two, can you?

As for Steig Larsson’s books, I’ve only read this first one in the trilogy; my imagination wasn’t quite as captured as everyone else’s. “Solid pulp,” I thought, but not distinguished by vivid or memorable prose.

What couldn’t be denied is that Lisbeth Salander is a great character. Still, I didn’t feel like Larsson had humanized the characters enough for me to need to check out their next adventures.

I thought Niels Arden Oplev’s film was a solid dramatization of the book, and I didn’t think anybody could play Lisbeth better than Noomi Rapace. Still, you get the idea: I wasn’t exactly burning to read or watch on.

I guess the best compliment I can pay to Fincher’s film is that it sparks my interest enough to make me want to pick up the two remaining volumes and to look forward to what he will do with them as movies.

To his credit, Fincher proceeds as though most people don’t know how the mystery told in the book turns out (a missing girl, presumed murdered on an island 40 years ago), even though the books were massive, massive hits. I guess he had no choice.

Daniel Craig is well-cast here as an old-school investigative journalist of courage and integrity, but he’s not the real star, of course. Lisbeth Salander is the character that really captured everybody’s imagination. She’s the brilliant badass investigator and hacker; a feral, perhaps slightly autistic, punk rock Goth girl with enough ‘tude to kill everyone in Sweden. However, one senses she is essentially gentle until provoked.

Rooney Mara is very good at conveying someone who has been the victim of unspeakable abuse but who absolutely refuses to act like a victim (among other things, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be thought of as a revenge movie). Mara is perhaps a bit harder to buy in the role than Rapace, but that only gives the character more of a sense that her look is her armor, shielding something perhaps more vulnerable.

Even if one can’t avoid comparing the American version with the Swedish, when it comes to direction and storytelling, you’ve got to give it to Fincher over Oplev. Fincher tells the story with more verve. His film is a sustained feat of parallel editing; the art of toggling between stories to suggest that they’re going on at the same time. In skilled hands, this is one of the main cinematic tools for constructing suspense, and no one wields it more excruciatingly than Fincher.

You could also look at the scene of the attempted subway mugging of Lisbeth to see the difference between the two films. In the original, it was a standard scuffle. Staged by Fincher, it becomes a bravura sequence of movement, action and cutting, fighting up an escalator and a sliding getaway down. It contains a great moment for Rooney: when she abruptly roars in the face of her attacker, we’re stunned, too. She’s like a wild animal cornered; a Cobra baring her fangs.

The writing by Steven Zaillian is tight. They’ve edited the material within an inch of its life, leaving in basically the same parts of the book as the Swedish film, although if I’m remembering the original correctly, the American film has conflated a couple characters (sisters) in a way that plays with the identity of the missing girl in a rather fundamental way, without somehow making much of a difference at all.

Also notable is the interplay of Fincher’s wintry imagery with the pulsing electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose. The opening credit sequence is absolute dynamite: an industrial version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” sung by Karen O over molten blue-black imagery, human forms being born in pain out of this primordial sea of liquid metal and fire.

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.