The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The burnt offering isn’t the film reel

Some time ago, I expressed apprehension about the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I insist on calling a remake, despite the new film also being based upon the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.  I was certain the rape scenes would be toned down, that there would be little to no smoking, and that Daniel Craig would beat someone up, but in this case, I’m glad to have been partly wrong.  Is David Fincher’s remake as good as the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009?  No.  Is it still a great movie?  Yes.

I talked about the plot last time, but for frame of reference, I’ll retread.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is in trouble, having lost a libel case against a wealthy businessman, and all he sees on television is the world shunning him.  His magazine is doomed.  Elsewhere in Sweden, young Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her guardian and is forced under the control of the abusive Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningan).  A phenomenal hacker working for a security firm, Lisbeth completes an extensive background check on Blomkvist for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), former CEO of Vanger Industries.  Henrik then contacts Blomkvist, offering him two jobs: writing the memoirs of Henrik and his dysfunctional family, and discovering the fate of his great-niece, Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by a family member who may still live on Hedeby Island.  The stories of Lisbeth and Blomkvist remain separate until the latter realizes he’s going to need an assistant to help solve the case.  Also joining the cast are Robin Wright, Princess Buttercup herself, as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s co-editor and lover; and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger, Henrik’s son and current CEO of the company.

Mara’s performance is an incredible breakthrough for her, and is every ounce as brave as Noomi Rapace’s performance as the same character.  Fincher’s version of Lisbeth, however, is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than Oplev’s, and we’ve only our culture to blame for that – American audiences want a vulnerable female.  Yes, she falls for Blomkvist in the novel, but you never get the sense that these two characters are destined to be a married couple, nor that Lisbeth would want that.  You can easily chalk it up to the fact that with her personal issues and emotional obsessions, Lisbeth can’t even stand the fact that Blomkvist associates with another woman, but I guess that’s my fundamental problem right there: it shouldn’t need “chalking up.”  The intention should be obvious.

Daniel Craig’s performance is surprisingly understated, and I respect the fact that Fincher had him playing the actual character instead of relying on Craig’s name (not to mention his roster of characters, which seem to be the same character over and over) to sell the role.  Christopher Plummer is, as always, the sweet, grandfatherly old man, and provides us with characters as sympathetic as they come.  Whenever he cries in a movie, I get choked up.   Skarsgård is charming and seems like a real person, and even when he employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, there’s a reason for it.  As I’ve said about this story before, it’s not your garden-variety, plot-driven crime thriller.  This is something special.

Besides the big budget and the undeniably “clean” look of the film (as opposed to the grungy, quiet darkness of the original) and the abrupt change in Lisbeth’s emotional state, the only other standout problem is, as I suspected, the choice of Trent Reznor as composer.  He’s not Hans Zimmer; he’s the guy from Nine Inch Nails.  After an incredibly overlong, overbudgeted, James-Bond-type opening credits sequence, Reznor’s music still proves intrusive, often playing more loudly than the film dialogue.  A half hour into the film, though, this stops being a problem.  Either the music shifted gears or my brain toned it out.

As it is such a close adaptation, I suppose I’d agree with Swedish director Oplev’s reaction to the remake: “Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”  I have this reaction about 99% of remakes, especially those done by Hollywood.  On the other hand, this story is so real, so gritty, so believable and refreshingly different from every two-bit formula thriller staining the celluloid week after week, that I will not only let it go, I’ll support it.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust Fincher with one of my books (not that he’s asked), but I trust him with Lisbeth, for now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011); written by Steven Zaillian, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s novel; directed by David Fincher; starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Cross your fingers for honorable mention

Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is a film that makes me regret that the masterworks of our friends overseas will always fall into the category of “foreign films” when I talk about them.  “Richard, what is that movie you’re watching?”  “Oh; it’s a foreign film.  It’s Swedish.”  Granted, David Fincher is doing a surely groan-worthy American adaptation of the Millennium Trilogy, but Oplev’s film will overshadow not only any adaptation of this novel, but any crime thriller released in the near future.

I have a difficult time swallowing the phrase “foreign film” when it comes to gems like this one.  Because it’s territory that makes me feel as un-foreign as un-foreign can be: this is the type of narrative I’m at home in.

Rapace, who plays co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, is the driving force behind the film. A bisexual pseudo-punk (“goth” if you must) hacker who lives alone, Lisbeth has a troubled past about which we are allowed to learn very little. She becomes obsessed with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and a murder case he is following, going so far as to email him further clues about the case’s solution. Do not misunderstand: Lisbeth is not a girl who needs a man; this is obsession on a deeper level. She is a near-recluse, keeps to herself, has a photographic memory, and shows telltale signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. She is sexually aggressive but completely passionless, approaching physical encounters with nearly frustrating cavalierness, and never giving a smile or a laugh in the entire span of two-and-a-half hours. Her chain-smoking would make Elliott Gould proud. Rapace plays the role with heartbreaking honesty; this is hands-down one of the bravest performances in recent memory.

The movement of the film relies on your standard thriller fare.  We start with an old man who has a problem (Sven-Bertil Taube), a few red herrings and a missing woman, along with a dashing (but not too dashing in this case) protagonist steadfastly dedicated to tracking down the suspect.  Rapace’s character offsets this classic balance, and the results are refreshing.

The Swedish language is beautiful to listen to, even when the killer is explaining his shenanigans during the climax of the film.  The plot takes plenty of turns without ever relying on cheap twists or deus ex machina, and the surprises during the last forty minutes warrant a re-watch.  Oplev gives us true drama where an American film might replace dialogue with CG and action.

I worry about this American remake.  I can’t imagine Daniel Craig as A) a Swede, and B) playing Mikael.  Furthermore, after all the talk of who would play Lisbeth in the American version, Fincher settled on Rooney Mara, a 25-year-old who has done next to no dramatic acting, the majority of her appearances being in teen schlock and corny horror knockoffs.  This is a story meant to be told in its native language with no imitations.  Don’t misunderstand: I am glad an American director wants to pay homage to Larsson despite a film trilogy based on the source material having already been developed and released, but here are a few points you can count on for the remake: there will be more “action” scenes (maybe they’ll even throw in a shootout); the rape scenes will be severely toned down if not cut out altogether and only implied offscreen; there will be far less smoking (if any); there will be thrice the product placement; and Daniel Craig will beat someone up (TBA whether he’s shirtless or not) and say macho stuff that isn’t in the novel.

Trepidations about this and that aside, please see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Tell your film-aficionado-friends about it and have a movie night, then go see the sequels (in theaters now and October).  You will be dazzled by the direction, moved by Rapace’s performance, and you’ll have a frame of reference for when the remake nightmares begin.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009); based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.