David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is stylistically stark and beautiful, expertly acted, and a major disappointment. I haven’t read the original book, but I have seen the first film to adapt it, Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher’s version probably would have been better off without another one to pale next to. Despite extraordinarily graphic content, which amazingly got past the MPAA with an R-rating, the 2011 film feels surprisingly tame thanks to weakened characters and story changes that rob the mystery of much-needed suspense.
The plot: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is an investigative reporter, recently disgraced after his accusations of corruption against a corporate tycoon cannot be proved. He’s hired by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the forty-year-old murder/disappearance of his niece, Harriet, in exchange for information that can prove Blomkvist’s original allegations. Eventually Blomkvist teams up with the antisocial Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who heretofore has been dealing – drastically – with her guardian/rapist, and together they strive to solve the historic crime that mars the Vanger family to this day.
The A-plot is a standard whodunit, with clues and investigations and so on, but it carries no weight. It doesn’t help that there’s only one plausible culprit alive and well in the story. You’ll know him when you see him. The previous film had a red herring that ramped up the suspense and kept the mystery alive, but now the conclusion feels foregone. Fincher ekes precious mood and eeriness from the wintry Swedish landscape and films the hell out of every step of Blomkvist and Salander’s process, effectively dramatizing the minutiae of their busywork in a clean, often exciting manner. But the heroes seem isolated from the world of the Vanger family, whereas in the previous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Blomkvist, at least, felt thoroughly immersed in their tensions. In the 2011 version, solving Harriet’s murder seems at best a matter of principle, at worst a token distraction from the character dynamics. The mystery never seems like the most important thing on the protagonists’ minds, and once they team up it’s solved with such rapidity that it seems like a sinister miracle that the killer escaped justice for 40 years.
Rooney Mara is getting the most attention for this, which is expected to be her breakout role. She is excellent in conveying the choices made for her character, but those choices don’t seem entirely wise. This Lisbeth Salander masks herself in a wallflower invisibility when she’s not violently asserting herself. It seems unfair to compare her performance to Noomi Rapace’s – which I still contend was unfairly ignored by the Academy Awards last year – but somebody had the bright idea to remake a film that’s fresh in our memories, so they have no right to complain about the juxtaposition. Rapace’s confidence is sorely missing from this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mara’s performance is admittedly hindered by a script that seems to perceive her as a “good girl” waiting for the right man to come along, rather than a woman whose battle scars give her more purpose than a conventional heterosexual romance. This Lisbeth Salander is weaker than her counterpart, and the film is weaker for it. Craig, to his credit, anchors the film with a quietly charismatic, thoughtful performance that deserves more attention than it’s getting.
The original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was by no means a timeless classic, but it told its story in a suspenseful, dramatic and engrossing way. In his remake, Fincher practically hides the meat of the story – the pervasive misogyny against which Salander is so virulently fighting – behind stylish, sometimes even muted flash. An opening credits sequence – displaying powerful imagery of violence (and liquid, for some reason) accompanied by a new cover The Immigrant Song – plays like an apology for the film’s upcoming failings. It’s sound and fury, signifying a lack of confidence in the lack of interest that follows. Even with occasional spurts of extreme sexual violence, this is a thoroughly conventional mystery despite a cast of characters who should have overcome the film’s limitations. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an exercise in style, hinting at but never achieving greatness, or even elevating itself to above-average thrills.