The idea of a second film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so soon after Neils Arden Oplev’s 2009 movie is a problem for some. But while it may be mistakenly lumped with other American remakes of foreign films, David Fincher’s finished piece is proof that (like Matt Reeves’ Let Me In ) it’s possible to adapt a novel more than once – and do a cracking job of it.
Opening with an effective burst of exposition, we see journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) take a leave of absence from Millennium magazine after being charged with libel. What can he do with his time off? Luckily, up pops retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who hires him to write his official biographic – and unofficially, to investigate the murder of his great-niece, Harriet. And so Blomkvist heads to Hedestad, where he finds snow, a closet full of family secrets and a stray cat (which he simply calls ‘cat’).
As in Larsson’s novel, all of this plot stuff is just an excuse to introduce us to one of literature’s most engaging heroines of recent years: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Following the intense performance of Noomi Rapace in the 2009 film, Mara’s take on the sociopathic computer hacker will be subject to much scrutiny from fans. Fortunately, like the rest of the movie, she absolutely nails it.
Salander soon gets recruited as Blomkvist’s assistant, and a relationship slowly forms. Wandering around the frosty landscape in a t-shirt that reads “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”, she’s a hostile customer, but only when provoked; she stays startlingly silent and vulnerable, right up to the point where her legal guardian sexually abuses her. Her response is more gruesome than the series of grisly murders that Blomkvist uncovers – but Fincher is smart enough not to glamorise the graphic content horror of Larsson’s novel.
The rest is equally well-judged, from Fincher’s sweeping, dynamic camera movements to Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s snappy editing. Flashbacks are stylish mini-movies in their own right, while the conventional detective plot skips along accompanied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ atmospheric score. You get the sense that Fincher doesn’t need to tell us things through lengthy dialogue: he can just show us instead. It’s that knack for visual storytelling that makes this 158-minute adaptation so special.
Deftly hopping between a quiet victim’s tale and a threatening thriller, the shifting tone comes from Steven Zaillan’s dark script. Streamlining Larsson’s clunky storytelling, Zaillan injects a welcome streak of humour into events, giving Craig – and the rest of the superb cast – a chance to be both funny and icily ominous.
The problem is the ending. Not as neat as Oplev’s conclusion, it feels like the director outstays his welcome by 20 minutes trying to remain faithful to the text. But Fincher’s final scene, not in Larsson’s book, is one that really shows his understanding of the source material – and of Lisbeth’s lonely, conflicted character.
Coupled with a loud opening credits sequence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo recalls his earlier work on Se7en (1996). Fusing that aggression with his methodical 2008 masterpiece Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo feels less impressive than either, but it’s still excellent stuff. Whether you call it a remake or not, it’s really fantastic.