Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Thanks Very Much, but You Really Didn’t Have To

This Hollywood adaptation of Stieg Larsson's creepy best seller, already made into a pretty fine Swedish movie, is slick, grisly and unnecessary

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Anders Lindén / Columbia Pictures

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

A hacker of feral genius, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) carries some of Sweden’s grisliest secrets in her computer, and she’s not the only one who knows the import of her downloads. In a Stockholm subway station, a man grabs her computer bag and dashes up an escalator toward the street. Lisbeth runs after the thief, kicks him where it hurts and retrieves the bag, then eludes the man and his confederates by sliding down the escalator partition to the subway platform and slipping between the closing doors of a departing train. The whole thing takes about a minute.

This scene from David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, first in the trilogy of Swedish thrillers by Stieg Larsson, displays a masterly construction of lightning suspense and action choreography. Who are the bagnappers? What force of evil has employed them? Those questions can tantalize the viewer, but at this point, they don’t matter. The crucial thing is the daubing of another vivid shade on Lisbeth’s personality. She is a haunted, hunted creature who possesses quick and ruthless means of defending herself — the goth girl as action heroine. On its own, the scene stands as an expert demonstration of the visceral kick that is unique to the best American pop movies.

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The Larsson books were violent thrillers elevated by social messages — the equivalent of pulp fiction printed on fine vellum. That definition could nearly fit Fincher’s first six features. Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room and Zodiac all revealed his facility and preoccupation with scenarios of cat-to-mouse sadism. And depending on your opinion of Mark Zuckerberg, you could see Fincher’s The Social Network as a less lurid take on the same story. (I’ll skip The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another Fincher film I love but which doesn’t fit this thesis.) So it’s easy to see why one of our most accomplished, distinguished directors would be drawn to Dragon Tattoo.

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Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian just had to pretend that the novel hadn’t already been made into a pretty fine Swedish film. Hollywood has often Americanized foreign movies: James Cameron’s True Lies, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days and the Steve Carell comedy Dinner for Schmucks were all remakes of French films. But the 2009 Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and cut down from a Swedish miniseries, earned more than $100 million at the worldwide box office and was the biggest foreign-language art-house hit in North America since the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. The movie and its two sequels also showcased a scary-great performance by Noomi Rapace, who crept inside Lisbeth to impart the girl’s battered, heroic glory.

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For a significant minority of the audience, then, the new film will be stalked by the shadow of Oplev’s original and the indelible memory of Rapace’s Lisbeth. To them, the Fincher version may be as crass as Pat Boone’s covers of Fats Domino and Little Richard songs in the 1950s: the dilution of an authentic piece by a mainstream appropriator. Fincher’s admirers may discount the charge of coopting and yet still wonder what spurred him to spend a year of his life — more, if he directs films of the second and third books — on a fairly faithful adaptation of an international best seller that became an international hit movie. I had that same thought before and after seeing this Dragon Tattoo: Why bother?

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Before the movie begins, Lisbeth used her hacking skills to ferret into the personal life of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a left-wing muckraker facing jail time for slandering a powerful industrialist. Now she joins Mikael on a dirtier job of inside investigative reporting. Another Swedish plutocrat, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has hired Mikael and Lisbeth to solve the mysterious disappearance, and presumed murder, of Henrik’s great-niece Harriet in 1966. Mikael holes up on the Vangers’ frosty private island, thumbing through old photographs, while Lisbeth buries herself in library stacks, researching the family’s odd history. Other than Henrik’s amiable nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), the Vangers seem as cranky and crazy as Leatherface’s clan in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If you thought the statute of limitations on Nazi torturers might have expired 66 years after the fall of the Third Reich, think again. Some villains have too great a hold on the popular imagination to fade from popular fiction.

Nazis and their spawn aren’t the only sexual sadists in this story. The Swedish title of Larsson’s novel translates as “Men Who Hate Women”; for half her young life, as the daughter of a mobster and a ward of the state, Lisbeth has had intimate knowledge of their priapic predations. One such man is Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), appointed Lisbeth’s guardian when her previous supervisor suffers a stroke. Bjurman has suave conversational skills, a bureaucratic authoritativeness and the compulsion to manacle and torture the young women in his care. He’s good at all these things, we can infer, because he’s done them so often. When Lisbeth resists, he says, “I like reticence. It’s almost convincing.” As an afterthought before penetrating her, he says, “I forgot to ask: Do you like anal sex?” In van Wageningen’s meaty, almost musical rendition, Bjurman is quite the smooth sickie — just like the killer Mikael and Lisbeth will eventually confront.

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The main bad guy says murder is “the science of a thousand details.” So is directing a complex movie like this, and Fincher throws his considerable energy and skill into every frame. Start with the opening-credit sequence: a pristine rendering of down-and-dirty impulses, with bats and dragon images flickering through enough oil to pollute the Gulf of Mexico, that is nonetheless silky and sexy. The sequence is a reminder of Fincher’s early work directing music videos for Madonna, Aerosmith and Nine Inch Nails. (Trent Reznor, former front man for Nine Inch Nails, and Atticus Ross composed Dragon Tattoo‘s creepily evocative score.)

As Mikael and Lisbeth sleuth through similarly dank pools of human depravity, Fincher stirs echoes of the detectives’ pursuit of a killer genius in Se7en and the minutely detailed procedural aspects of Zodiac. Tracking down a killer requires sneaking around and snapping furtive photos (which Lisbeth takes with an old-fashioned camera, not an iPhone) but also endless hours of reading and typing. Fincher manages to impart some cinematic verve to the sedentary application of nerd power; the movie raises it to seraphic levels. Or it can be twisted into the satanic — since a man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering women, but wouldn’t care to get caught at it, also needs to be a resourceful researcher. “You and I are quite similar,” the killer tells Mikael. “We both have urges. But mine require more towels.” In a basement-laboratory climax that is close enough to The Human Centipede to make some viewers squirm and others giggle, Dragon Tattoo almost summons awe for the killer’s psycho-majesty.

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Whatever the magnetism of a thriller plot involving the deranged rich (and in this version, there’s little question about whodunit, since that “who” is the only suspect the film spends much time with), the irresistible lure of Larsson’s book is Lisbeth — for readers and viewers no less than for Fincher. Her black garb, pierced flesh and tattooed back are both an advertisement of otherness and a kind of corporeal performance art. This, her body suggests, is how men who hate women have inscribed their lust. When provoked, she will do the same to them. In executing her own sentences on monsters like Bjurman, Lisbeth passes severe justice on the male impulse that brutalizes women. She is both the avatar of all these victims and their avenger.

For anyone making a film of Dragon Tattoo, the single most important decision is the casting of Lisbeth. The Swedes hit the jackpot with Rapace; her incarnation of a burning intelligence and a wounded psyche sent the movie soaring far above its thriller moorings. Did Fincher consider her for his own Dragon Tattoo? There would have been a precedent. When the 1936 Swedish film Intermezzo, another story about the relationship of a middle-aged man and a beguiling young woman, was remade in Hollywood three years later, producer David O. Selznick decided that the female lead would be played by the same young Swedish actress: Ingrid Bergman. Fincher didn’t go that way; he awarded the Lisbeth part to Mara, who made a strong impression as Zuckerberg’s disastrous date in the first scene of The Social Network. The director has said he warned Mara that this could be a career-defining role — that no matter what else she goes on to do, she may always be associated with it, like Vivien Leigh with Scarlett O’Hara.

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She is closer to Lisbeth’s age than Rapace, and through training and makeup she looks the part. In one scene, when her pale face peeks through a black cowl, she could be a figure from Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality play The Seventh Seal: death’s kid sister. She throws herself into the role, her craft chasing her ambition. When Lisbeth tells her guardian, “The reports suggest that I’m insane — I am insane,” you may almost believe her. Almost but not quite. She acquits herself perfectly O.K., but Mara is no O’Hara; Rooney is no Noomi. She doesn’t achieve what Rapace did: a miraculous alchemy of actress into character.

In that sense, Mara is the face and heart of the film: a well-wrought simulacrum of the original. Seeing Fincher’s version is like getting a Christmas gift of a book you already have. This edition has a nicer binding and prettier illustrations than your beloved old paperback, but it’s essentially a reproduction of the same old dragon. Dragon Tat-two.

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