We don’t live in a vacuum.
This makes reviewing David Fincher’s new film more challenging than it ought to be, because, as a global phenomenon, the late Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is the biggest thing since the Harry Potter series. To date, the Trilogy’s first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, has sold around 30 million copies worldwide, and the first film adaptation (which, you might recall, ended up at #4 on my list of 2010’s best films) set the stage for the adaptation of the rest of the trilogy in its mother tongue.
So, here’s the thing. We know the story, and we know it well.
As such, it’s tough to watch the American interpretation without sitting with a mental checklist firmly at the forefront of the cranium, with telepathic pen ready to mark off what’s improved, unimproved, the same and completely different.
It’s not entirely fair, and I admit that freely. I’d like to have been able to watch the new film without any baggage and be able to report to you on exactly what it accomplishes on its own merits, but that’s just not possible.
So, what do we know?
For one, that the story is mostly the same. I’ve made the assumption that it’s one you know, but, of course, you might have been living under a rock, for which you have my pity and the following: Mikhail Blomkvist, the recently disgraced editor of Millenium magazine, takes a job to solve the 40 year old murder of millionaire tycoon Henrik Vanger’s niece, Harriet. After various twists and turns, he finds himself working with Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant, troubled hacker with a knack for collecting and interpreting information. What neither of them realize is how deeply the trail goes, and how much they will be changed by the journey.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo looks fantastic. Fincher’s attention to detail and commitment to craftsmanship certainly don’t go amiss, even if he doesn’t take the material as far down as he might have. There are some sinister, sinister goings on here, and that Fincher chooses not to linger on, shall we say, certain instances of depravity is a bit of a surprise, particularly given where his sensibilities have taken him in the past. It certainly doesn’t descend to the moral or visual depths that he’s capable of, most notably in his darkest (and I’d argue best) film, Se7en. Personally, I feel that Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film hit harder insofar as shocks go, which is surprising, given Fincher’s skill for unsettling an audience. Ironically, I’d heard that there was talk that MPAA was considering giving The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo an NC-17 rating. It’s an idea that I find laughable, because, if any Fincher film should have an NC-17 rating, it’s Se7en. In this one, the action onscreen never really goes past atypical R-rated content, though it’s certainly a “hard” R.
One of the highlights of the film is the work of editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the better edited films I’ve seen in years. As the story’s told from both Mikail and Lisbeth’s vantage points, the editors do a terrific job of linking the two when they’re not sharing the screen. What’s more, they take their continuity cues from various sources. A lingering or abrasive sound in one scene can serve as a link to the next, or a moving shot toward one object might be where it jumps off into the next scene with a similar visual. It becomes more natural as the story progresses and Mikail and Lisbeth come closer in both physical and emotional proximity. More than anything, it’s Baxter and Wall who help to provide The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with its strong sense of rhythm. It may be over 2 ½ hours long but moves along very well, if not quite with the zippy pacing of Inglourious Basterds, the single zippiest 2 ½ hour movie I can recall.
Composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor play a big part in maintaining the film’s fluid continuity. Their work here and in The Social Network provide for some of the more exciting advances being made in contemporary film scoring. I think that Ross and Reznor’s two film scores to date continue a trend that began with Johnny Greenwood’s score for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, even if Greewood’s work is nearly traditional by comparison. With Ross and Reznor, their emphasis is on using music as a kind of invisible, referential sequence of sounds rather than as a collection of recognizable themes and motifs. While I don’t think that you’re going to be able to walk out of the theater and hum a single bar of the score, its influence upon the narrative is unmistakable.
The single best thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the same thing that stood out in the Swedish original: Lisbeth Salander. She’s one of the strongest characters to hit the screen in years, and, as written, is remarkably compelling regardless of who’s playing her. I’m exaggerating, but it’s almost as though a paper sack could play Lisbeth and be incredibly effective. She’s that well-written of a character. While Lisbeth’s so tightly wound up to try and keep anyone from hurting her, there’s also a twinge of an idealist in there too. She’s the type that keeps her head down so nobody sees her face, but just can’t help peeking up at the stars.
Rooney Mara brings a very different sensibility to the part than Noomi Rapace did, and that’s not something I was quite expecting. For one, Mara’s got a much slighter physique, which, while Rapace isn’t bulky by any means, certainly changed the way I viewed the character. Where Rapace was withdrawn, introspective, and intensely private, Mara has a certain openness that’s unique to her take on Lisbeth. Daniel Craig, on the other hand, is fine, but it’s very much the same brooding action everyman that we’ve gotten used to seeing him play in every film he’s in. It’s not a bad act, certainly, but I’d like to see him branch out a little bit and try and play a few different notes on that piano.
A notable difference between the two films is the chemistry between the two leads. With Craig and Mara, Blomkvist seems to be the dominant one in the relationship, but with Nykvist and Rapace, it’s definitely Salander. Personally, I’d have to give the chemistry edge to Nykvist and Rapace. The way that their relationship evolved seemed more authentic and consistent with who they were and the influence of their life experiences upon their ability to interact with others. Mara and Craig, while a solid pair, don’t quite have the same cohesion, and there were moments when I felt that Mara’s Salander had a dependence on Blomkvist in a way that wasn’t entirely consistent with who I knew the character to be.
There are a few changes in the script that provide for a bit of a different effect than the original had. In particular, there’s a significant change to the story’s ending. Fortunately, it’s one that works, even if the staging of the initial reveal is poorly managed and dilutes what should be a pretty powerful moment. Additionally, where the Swedish film left out the novel’s affecting final scene, writer Steven Zaillian left it in, and ends the film on a poignant note that I think really does it credit.
Ultimately, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is stylishly engaging and a worthy adaptation of a story that now belongs to the world. If it’s not quite up the standard set by the 2009 film, it’s consistently entertaining and I hope it does the kind of box office that will be needed to ensure that Fincher gets the chance to make the remaining films in the trilogy.
I don’t often choose to see a film more than once theatrically, but I’m thinking that I might make another trip for this one. In my book, Lisbeth Salander is such a terrific character that any chance to spend some time following her around is time well spent.
I'm hooked, ok?
4 stars (out of 5)