Lisbeth Salander chows down on not one but two Happy Meals; a sadistic murderer listens to Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ as a means of psyching himself up for a kill; and the opening credit sequence is a super-sexy, ultra-violent, James Bond-esque animation set to a blistering cover of ‘Immigrant Song’. Needless to say, this is not your grandfather’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s 2005 novel goes to great lengths to distance itself from the woeful Swedish version of the same name (itself only two years old). By doing so, he betters it in every single way. Whereas the previous picture was – and I’m cribbing lazily from my original review here – “sorely lacking in substance, motivation, action, tension, ambiguity and style”, Fincher’s take is positively crackling with electricity at every moment. It sheds the oh-so-serious tone, clarifies the convoluted plot, and conveys its mystery in a manner that is compelling to watch. The central character of Lisbeth Salander is evolved from a “faux-gothic cipher fuelled by a vaguely-defined sense of vengeance” into a living, breathing entity that you both fear and care about. But most importantly, Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fantastically good time at the movies, which is saying something considering all the grisly rape scenes.
The tale begins with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) stepping aside as editor of the Millennium magazine following a costly defamation suit. With his reputation in tatters, and his bank account empty, he decides to take on a unique freelance gig on an island just outside of Stockholm, where Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and the entire unsavoury Vanger clan reside. Henrik has recruited Mikael to solve the 40-year-old case of his missing granddaughter Harriet, and he’s certain her kidnapper is one of his family members. Blomkvist begins the inquiry in earnest, but as the murders stack up and the stories from the individual Vangers (Stellan Skarsgard, Geraldine James, Joely Richardson) conflict, he requests a research assistant to help carry the load. Enter hacker Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), an anti-social and dragon-tattooed ward of the state. Though she’s battling sexual demons (from her past and in her present), the 23-year-old is intrigued by the Vanger mystery, and teams with Mikael to find this “killer of women”.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is clearly the spiritual sequel to Fincher’s The Social Network, and not just because much of its behind-the-scenes talent returns. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ once again provide a chilling, propulsive score; cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth crisply photographs Sweden as the scariest, most beautiful place on Earth; and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall maintain the breakneck pace without ever stranding us in the snowy-depths of Larsson’s exposition. It is fun, however, to compare outcast/computer genius Lisbeth Salander with outcast/computer genius Mark Zuckerberg (or, at least the Fincher-Sorkin version of Zuckerberg). Not only do they share the same ‘people skills’, but the two of them speak in the same clipped and curt manner. Lisbeth’s certifiably insane, Zuckerberg arguably has his own mental disorder, and they both wind up pining over the only individual to treat them like a regular person.
It’s integral to note just how much more interesting Lisbeth is here than she was in Niels Arden Oplev’s previous adaptation. That movie, in the place of actual character development, merely had Lisbeth confronted by a seemingly endless, “clown-car” parade of misogynistic male characters. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian tone down the volume of attacks, and instead make the singular instance of her abuse (inflicted by her parole officer, no less) all the more unsettling. We also get further insight into her home life, and see glimpses of humanity and fragility behind her stoic gaze. Noomi Rapace was good, but Rooney Mara is revelatory (well, she would be if she hadn’t already wowed us into submission in Social Network). Daniel Craig is similarly excellent, and they’re aided by a solid supporting cast. Fincher’s film as a whole is a lot less silly and a lot more captivating than Oplev’s. For instance, the investigation is thrilling this time around (Google, the primary research tool of the other picture, has been replaced by actual computer hacking and problem solving). Zaillian actually shows us how good Mikael and Lisbeth are at cracking cases, and give the audience enough information to try and unravel the mystery themselves.
It’s impossible to deny Fincher’s world class approach to filmmaking; in every shot, he knows the exact right place to put the camera. It’s funny how simple choices like that can elevate a film into the upper echelons, especially compared to an earlier attempt that failed on almost every level. It reminds me of the Lars von Trier documentary The Five Obstructions (so many movies do!), where the Danish provocateur challenged his mentor Jorgen Leth to remake his own short several times under a different series of constraints. The result was vastly different every time. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes a convincing argument for remakes. With the right combination of talent behind and in front of the camera (or merely, different combinations), who knows what magic will be created.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrives in Australian cinemas January 12, 2012.