[The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, and Christopher Plummer
MPAA: R – For Brutal Violent Content Including Rape & Torture, Strong Sexuality, Graphic Nudity, and Language]
The word “remake” has become associated with so many feelings of vile contemptment in the movie-nerd world. With so many horrible and unnecessary remakes being churned out each year, from classics to more recent foreign films, it’s hard to forget the remakes that are handled well. Last year we had the incredibly under-appreciated Let Me In (Remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In), Martin Scorsese turned a pulpy Chinese gangster film (Infernal Affairs) into a new crime classic with The Departed, and most people tend to forget that many classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly were remakes.
Sometimes, being first doesn’t automatically make you the winner. Because when an assured director is able to own up the source material and make it his/her own, then it stops being a remake and becomes a full-fledged great movie. And while David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo simply can not be discussed without mentioning the original Swedish film which was based on the original Swedish bestselling novel, it is still able to stand on its own. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is quite simply one of the best thrillers of the year, remake or not.
So, I guess I need to summarize my opinion of the originals first before beginning my review of this remake. I’ve actually read the first book and watched the first film, but I haven’t seen or read the other two stories in the Girl series. The book was great, if not too long and overly-detailed for its own good, though I was willing to let that slide since having an insanely detailed narrative works well in a literary format. The film didn’t lend itself to that nearly as well, but it was still a solid movie with a strong central performance from Noomi Rapace (Who you can find making her English-language debut in another big blockbuster coming out this month, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). I didn’t love it nearly as much as everyone else seemed to have, but as far as a faithful adaptation of the book goes, it was perfectly serviceable.
The stories of all three versions–book, original film, and remake–center around an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, in this version) who is called forth to a private island to solve a 40-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, who was part of the large, wealthy Vanger family. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who was basically like a father to Harriet, has been being tormented by her killer for 40 years since her disappearance, for he has been annually receiving wildflowers, something that Harriet used to give him all the time, since the time after her death. Blomkvist, eager to solve the case after being offered a deal he can’t refuse, enlists the help of the titular and iconic Lisbeth Salander, a goth cybergenius who can hack her way into the White House if she wasn’t so emotionally fragile. Together they piece together something far greater than they could’ve ever suspected: a sadistic serial killer of women who may or may not be part of the Vanger family.
Now, it’s weird to discuss why I find this film much superior to the original. On a basic plot and structural level, everything has mostly remained the same. There are a couple rather major alterations here and there, but 95% of the film is incredibly faithful to both original source materials which its basing itself on, plot-wise. Where it differs is the style, which may not seem like a big deal since style is all for naught without substance, but the Fincher’s assured direction actually elevates the film’s plot rather than detracts or distracts from it.
Being shot on a bigger budget and all, the film has a much better sense of atmosphere and dread. Bleak and cold in every sense of the word, Fincher creates a real sense of place in the Vanger Island that creates tension and unease throughout the entire picture. To me, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is David Fincher at his Finchiest…I promise I’ll punch myself later for typing that. It has the sadistic violence of Se7en, the strong characterizations and dialogue of The Social Network, the sprawling and detailed narrative of Zodiac, and the nail-biting suspense of pretty much all of his movies wrapped up into one.
I’ve heard many of this version’s detractors describe the film as “bland”, and I couldn’t disagree more. If this is what bland is, then bland should become a standard that every other mediocre thriller should aspire to. I can see why some people would say that though. This remake, despite its subtle differences, is still incredibly similar to the original film. So similar, in fact, that it’s weird to find the same people who praised the original call this remake out as “bland”. It could perhaps be that they’ve literally seen this story before, and I can understand that, but I think that that’s a disservice to what Fincher brings to the table.
While I did like the Swedish film a lot, there was never a moment that really let me into the movie. It was a really solid thriller, but it ultimately never transcended “solid” due to a straight-forward approach in its directing. While some prefer that the straight-forward approach of the Swedish director, Niels Arden Oplev, created a sense of objective clarity and directness in the plot, I thought that Fincher’s direction allowed for more complex characters and a more refined sense of dread that helps establish its themes of misogyny and the ugliness of human nature much better than the original.
Whereas Oplev was more direct, Fincher is more murky, but in a good sort of way. The characters all have a sense of moral ambiguity that gives each of them, even the side-characters, more depth than the original. Many of the characters in the Swedish film felt almost like archetypes rather than real people. Here, the characters are harder to read, but more captivatingly real, which creates a certain tension throughout every scene in the film.
And speaking of tension, it should go without saying that Fincher has always been a master of creating suspense and dread. While the Swedish film certainly was brutal, it never felt brutal. Here, everything is amplified. Some of my favorite scenes involved characters who clearly know of each others’ ulterior motives simply just having a conversation with each other, trying not to give a hint at what they’re really after. It reminded me a lot of the spectacularly intense moment in Zodiac, where Jake Gyllenhaal, after hearing that the man he’s talking with wants to head down over to the basement, remembers that the killer he was looking for had a basement, and that not many people in California had basements to begin with.
And on the other end of the spectrum, the brutal scenes, such as the much-talked-about rape scene and another involving a metal dildo, feel much more visceral and shocking than the previous iteration. Thanks to the atmosphere, and a spectacular score by Fincher’s The Social Network collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, these sequences feel more raw and unflinching than before, though it’s obviously not enjoyable to sit through by any means.
As bleak as the film is, I think that the film totally earns its darkness because it still manages to be so captivating. Not just because of Fincher’s direction. I also forgot to bring up the excellent performances. Daniel Craig is the A-lister of the cast, playing the film’s protagonist Mikael Blomkvist with his usually suave debonair, but it’s Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth Salander, that steals the show. Salander is just one of those characters that catches your attention automatically. She’s unique, interesting, hides deep emotional scars, and is always unpredictable. As played by Rooney Mara, who hasn’t really had any other major film roles until this, she is more spellbinding than ever. Mara, like pretty much everything else that makes this version superior to the original, creates a much better sense of unease and discomfort without over-playing it or making her character too detached from reality to sympathize with.
There are still a few flaws to be had, but they’ve been inherited from the original film. Like the original, it takes a long while for Salander and Blomkvist to actually team up (They don’t officially work together until the one hour mark), and it goes on a bit too long, reaching many points where you think it’s supposed to end but instead just keeps going and going. But I was willing to forgive that flaw this time around because unlike the Swedish film, they decided to go with the book’s beautifully bitter ending rather than just end it on a completely abrupt note.
Final Verdict: While it doesn’t really differentiate itself too much from the original film, Fincher’s version of the The Girl WIth The Dragon Tattoo is a perfect example of how small, subtle changes can make a huge difference, and ultimately make the film stand on its own despite its similarities. It’s a smart, captivating thriller that has strong performances–including a star-making turn for Rooney Mara–, and assured direction from David Fincher that ratchets up the suspense. It’s a rare remake that, despite being so similar to the original, ends up being so much better than it at the same time.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a good tattoo remover. I have no idea how I got these in the first place…