It must be hard for a film like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to get along in this world. Sure, there’s talent to spare here – Oscar-nominated director David Fincher, Oscar-winning writer Steve Zaillian, BAFTA-nominated actor Daniel Craig – and a story well worth telling. Sure there’s a load of hype and a fan base that voraciously devoured this story in book form. However, all of those aspects in its favor are blunted slightly by the fact that this film has technically already been made. I’m sure that must wreak havoc with its existential sense of necessity.
Yes, the American penchant for remaking foreign properties is a well-documented phenomenon, and no one should be surprised that the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would find itself the subject of a makeover. What is surprising, though, is how closely the new version hews to the original. While Fincher does make some changes to structure or character beats, this film remain a close enough facsimile of the original that it can barely make a case for its own existence. In some ways, the changes actually make for a reduction of the aspects that made the original so appealing.
On the surface, though, this remains a close, suitably moody retelling of the tale of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) quest to uncover the truth regarding a 40-year-old murder involving an eccentric family of wealthy industrialists living on an island in the north of Sweden. Sometime during the mid sixties, Harriet Vanger disappeared during a family gathering, and her great uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) has always blamed himself. Now, in the winter of his life, Henrik invites Blomkvist to find out the truth and give him some measure of peace. Blomkvist is at a crossroads in his career as a journalist, having been found guilty of libel against a powerful businessman, and he takes the job reluctantly. Lisbeth Salander, meanwhile, is having trouble removing herself from the oppressive heel of her state-appointed case worker, and, given her own personal history, is eager to help Blomkvist when he offers her the chance to capture “a killer of women.” The two form an unlikely bond that catapults their investigation into dark, tortured recesses of humanity better left unspoken.
On the surface this tale would be perfect for director David Fincher, who explored similar territory with his masterpieces Seven and Zodiac. A kind of unholy bonding of the two films seemed to be in the cards when production on this film was announced. However, something strange occurred, and the progeny fell somehow short of that lineage. While Fincher creates a moody, dark portrait through excellent photography and camera work, he never manages to make anything more than a seemingly note-for-note recreation of this film’s foreign sister. Each film makes excellent use of snowy, cloudy environments and wrings a certain amount of existential dread from the presence of so many twisted, detestable men, and each can rightly be called a perfectly fine entry into the crime genre. However, Fincher had a chance to impart something of his unique style or presence in this film, and yet fails to do so.
In fact, Fincher is so slavish to the template set by the predecessor that one wonders what drew him to this project in the first place. He doesn’t even bother changing the setting from Sweden to America, a move which might have allowed him to make some sort of cultural statement regarding American values; regarding our past, our future, and our view of gender. Yet every actor speaks perfect English, many of them with English accents, and thus there is a fundamental discord in the storytelling because the environment becomes unmoored from time and space. Newspapers appear in both English and Swedish, Blomkvist – who never speaks Swedish – prints a magazine in Swedish, and names remain un-Anglicized. For the first twenty minutes I waited for someone to address the obvious English heritage of the hero, but the moment never came. There was something very off, very lazy about this, and its weighs on me the more I consider it.
The actors all do a suitable job of bringing their characters to life, though outside of Salander this means little beyond showing up and speaking their lines. Craig is always excellent as a stoic, morally upright hero, and thus his performance here involves little more than toning down his otherwise imposing physicality. Mara, meanwhile, plays Salander with a kind of wound up, wide-eyed tension that feels genuine and visceral. She adopts the physical persona of Salander so well that one might question whether she simply looks the part really well. The two form a frienship/relationship that is shallow and yet strongly forged, yet neither requires a great deal of acting to really sell the union.
The one way in which this film definitely does differ from the previous incarnation is in the ending and the manner in which the film treats the characters in those waning moments. Blomkvist and Salander have a friction free relationship, and no moral equivocation is ever brought up regarding the identity and circumstance of the eventual villain. In the original movie there is a moment of questioning and debate regarding the agency of a certain kind of murderer. That deeper question is destroyed and replaced with a character arc that is unearned and which undermines much of the strength of one of the characters. Perhaps one day I will write a piece delineating the differences in that character from film to film, but for now suffice to say I was less thrilled with this take than with its foreign counterpart’s.
The one area in which this film does excel is the score. Trent Reznor has created a discordant meshing of all kinds of strange tones that distills unease into a sonic tonic. Not only that, but it is weaved so effortlessly into the narrative that it achieves a kind of sublime state of harmony with every other aspect. Consider one moment involving Salander, where the noise caused by a floor buffer provides a grating, unhappy undertone to a scene of intense distaste, and how that buffing noise melds perfectly with the music as it grows with the intensity of the scene. Once the scene has resolved itself the music dies, but the sound of the buffer remains, a vestige of the experience and the mood created. It is an insight into the way in which the world seems to be malignantly in opposition of Salander.
It is moments like that one which make me most disenchanted. Such a deceptively simple cinematic moment of power and import, the perfect melding of form with narrative and character. Had more of this story been addressed in a similar way, instead of the straightforward retread that it turned out to be, this review would be very different. Instead, though, I’m left saying this; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does a good job of playing an old song well, but fails completely to impart anything new or noteworthy into the tune.
I am sure people unfamiliar with the Swedish original will find this film entertaining and enjoyable, but in the end, I can’t help but question how it would defend its own existence if given the chance.