Based on Stieg Larsson’s internationally-acclaimed novel (originally titled The Men Who Hate Women), the latest film from David Fincher struck a chord of dissonance during its production among those who were content with the Swedish adaptation helmed by Niels Arden Oplev, which made its U.S. debut in late 2009. Many were nervous, if not downright angry, that Hollywood had once again taken its pickaxe to a foreign box office goldmine, determined to replicate its success in the form of an American remake. It is easy to sympathize with such preemptive discontent given that this course of action has resulted, far more often than not, in painfully dismal products that serve as shallow reflections of remarkable films. However, it is imperative that this exasperation is not allowed to cloud one’s judgment, and likewise overlook the few exemplary exceptions.
Shortly after the conclusion of a libel suit that cost him his reputation as well as his life savings, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) travels from Stockholm to nearby Hedestad to meet with retired millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who lives on the secluded Hedeby Island. Henrik wishes to hire Blomkvist to help solve the mystery surrounding his niece, Harriet Vanger, who vanished without a trace forty years ago. He believes she was murdered by someone who was on the island that day, which makes for a suspect pool consisting of what Henrik describes as “thieves, misers and bullies; the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet” – his family. Most of them still live with Henrik in scattered houses across the island, though few of them are sociable. In addition to offering a substantial financial reward, Henrik claims to possess damaging information about Hans-Erik Wennerström (the man who sued Blomkvist for defamation), which he will disclose once Blomkvist has completed the assignment.
Fueled primarily by his desire for the dirt Henrik has on Wennerström, Blomkvist accepts the task and moves into a guest cottage on the island. Once settled, he begins sifting through an extensive collection of evidence that Henrik has amassed over the years, including police reports, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other various documents related to the incident. While Blomkvist pursues one lead after another, the viewer is gradually acquainted with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a peculiar young woman whose austere personality is as striking as her appearance: a borderline-anorexic physique, ghostly pale skin, multiple tattoos and piercings, bleached eyebrows, hair dyed as black as night, and dark, baggy apparel. Moreover, she is a proficient hacker with a photographic memory and a loner.
Salander, who is also a ward of the state, is assigned a new guardian after her current one suffers a stroke. This individual, Nils Bjurman (Yorik van Wageningen), is a rude and malicious lawyer whose first action upon meeting with her is to seize control over her finances and declare that he will issue her a monthly allowance. Unfortunately for Salander, this is the least of the transgressions she suffers. In a later meeting he forces her to perform a sexual favor in exchange for an advance on her allowance. Then, when Salander comes up with a plan to turn the tables on him, he reveals just how monstrous he truly is in a harrowing, grueling scene that is searing in its intensity. Still, Salander does not leave the excruciating encounter empty-handed, and is able to use this fact to exact a devious revenge. By the time this compulsory distraction has run its course, Blomkvist has come to realize that the scope of his investigation is far greater than either he or Henrik had imagined, and he requests the assistance of a researcher. He is given Salander’s name as a recommendation, and upon tracking her down he convinces the initially reluctant woman to help him. From here on, the focus remains fixed mainly on the duo and their efforts to catch a serial murderer that is, in all likelihood, living among them on Hedeby Island.
To be blunt, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a gorgeous sight to behold, with elaborate shots painted utilizing a vast canvas of detail. The frame is frequently in motion, and often cutting to a breathtaking new composition every few moments, leaving little time to absorb the beauty inherent in Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography. Such is the nature of this film, though, as it moves forward at a rapid pace, albeit with magnificent poise and purpose. Equally stunning are the performances given by its two leads. Daniel Craig portrays Blomkvist with certain charm and a debonair sense of humor, while Rooney Mara is frank and fearless as she pours herself into Salander’s immense shoes. That these qualities create such an enthralling chemistry between the two is at times surprising, and always refreshing; their initial encounter, in particular, is nothing short of delightful to observe. Their support is similarly magnificent with Christopher Plummer, Yorik van Wageningen, Steven Berkoff, and Stellan Skarsgård all shining in their respective roles.
Naturally, Steven Zaillian took some liberties when penning the script, but they are no more intrusive to the narrative than those taken by his predecessor. Not only that, but much of what has been trimmed from the novel is shared between the films. For example, the Wennerström affair is brought up on occasion, and is even resolved by the end of the films, but it does not play quite as important a role and its intricacies are never discussed in great detail. Another notable omission lies with the character of Cecilia Vanger. While she and Blomkvist carried on a dalliance for some time in the novel, her filmic presence in both instances is relegated to a brief formality in introducing the various members of the Vanger family. Furthermore, in a manner similar to the Swedish film, the resolution of the Harriet Vanger investigation has been modified in this version, though I found this change to be inconsequential (however unnecessary) – much like it was in the original. With that in mind, there are a few delightful additions in Fincher’s film, the most prominent of which is the final scene between Salander and Bjorman – an encounter inspired by a flashback from the early pages of the second novel.
Of course, there are a myriad of other omissions and alterations one could discuss among the novel and the two films, but they are largely insignificant. Overall, this remake struck me as not only a more authentic translation of the novel than the Swedish version, but also a more elaborate and cohesive effort from the cast and crew. Those fretting can rest assured that David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a stalwart film, and regardless of whether you are experiencing this tale for the first, second, or third time – you are in for an exhilarating treat.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Bryan Nixon’s review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo here.
Director David Fincher
Screenplay Steven Zaillian
Original Novel Stieg Larrson
Producers Ceán Chaffin, Scott Rudin, Ole Søndberg, Søren Stærmose
Cinematography Jeff Cronenweth
Editors Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Score Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
With Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger)