The new American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a bad film, it is a pointless one. Its improvements upon the Swedish original are trivial and its deficiencies significant. I love director David Fincher. I believe he has made at least three masterpieces (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network). Here, he and ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) make a critical decision to refocus the story away from the procedural elements of solving the mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and try to build the it around the fascinating central pair of characters: disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and goth-hacker-with-photographic-memory Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
The original Dragon Tattoo felt too long, felt like it climaxed early, and contained a disturbing anal-rape sub-plot that was unrelated to the main plot. Fincher and Zaillian must have thought their tweaks to the story would help with this. Instead, this version feels even longer — so many montages of people looking at papers — feels like it climaxes even earlier — the revenge of Blomkvist and Salander on Wennerstrom here is an entire act instead of a coda — and the graphic rape scene still does not feel like it belongs in the story. (I realize that it becomes important in the sequels, but why not bring some of those elements into this film to help connect it, or push it to the sequel where it is more relevant?)
So much for the big picture. Let’s talk about the small details. First off all, why is everyone in the film putting on a Swedish accent except Daniel Craig? This was maddeningly distracting. Craig has a nice character trait of letting his glasses hang by his ear and… well, that’s about it. As a Bond, he is known for his brute force, not his charisma. In this story, Blomkvist is a runner, not a fighter, the opposite of Craig’s talents. Michael Nykvist, who played Blomkvist in the Swedish films, gave him a tenacity and real sense of self-righteousness. You could see what made Salander bond with him. Here, he’s an absolute zero. Colder than the climate of Hedeby Island.
Mara as Salader is fine. She feels younger and softer than Noomi Rapace, which makes her moments of violence more shocking, if slightly less credible. It goes without saying that the entire cast is more attractive than their predecessors, as you would expect from any Hollywood remake. There is, by my count, one more sex scene in this film. I liked the way the original film was shot just fine — in many ways the locations, camera angles and art direction of this film is identical. However, d.p. Jeff Cronenweth and his crew know how to elevate an image from adequate to stunning. The trailer for the film made it look like every frame could be a painting, and indeed the entire film came out that way. At times, especially with the music video of an opening credits sequence, the images are equal to the best modern art.
The movie misses at least two opportunities to plant the image of the young Salander burning her father alive. (During the scene where she tells Blomkvist about it or earlier, when she is watching the flames from the car crash.) This image, more than anything else in the original film, helped me get into the mystery of Salander’s character and piqued my interest for the sequels.
I did not like the sour note this film ended on, but I understand it as Fincher and Zaillian’s expressed attempt to refocus toward the relationship between Salander and Blomkvist. To make it really hit, there needed to be much more to it. We needed to see Blomkvist’s recovered happiness with Erika (Robin Wright) to understand that Salander sees it to. Her act of throwing away the leather jacket should feel self-sacrificing, not petulant, since these characters are going to have to team up again in the next film.
There is one moment that is a big improvement from the original: when the killer plays a particularly peaceful song as he is about to kill our hero. The filmmakers have learned well the great lesson of Kubrick, who immortalized at least three songs via irony (“We’ll Meet Again” in Dr. Strangelove, “Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange and “Mickey Mouse Club” in Full Metal Jacket). I love the way he says, reflectively, “I’ve never had a man in here before.” If only there had been a great deal more of this kind of odd, interesting character stuff and less of the montages of looking at documents. The original movie had a lot of procedural stuff too, but it didn’t feel glossed over. I felt like I was with the characters as they built their case.
I realize it is basic human psychology to attach to the first version of something. I recently heard an interview with food critic Ed Levine, who is an expert on pizza. He said most people’s favorite slice is based on the first one they tasted. I understand that people who came to the Swedish film version from the novel, probably still prefer the book. I bet people who are not familiar with the book or the Swedish film will like this version just fine. However, I just can’t shake the feeling that this film is not as good as the talents of the participants might have allowed. (Even Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score didn’t move me the way their work did for The Social Network.) My experience watching this film was one long sinking feeling. This is a wrong-footed start to a franchise, thus the cast and crew seems doomed to repeat their mistakes two additional times. What a pity.
NYMag: Does the very chilly Dragon Tattoo generate any sexual heat – Short answer: no, unless you like rape scenes.
FirstShowing.net interview with Fincher – wherein he talks about refocusing on the characters.