I’ve never read the novels by Stieg Larsson or seen the original Swedish film, so I went into David Fincher‘s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian) without any preconceptions or foreknowledge of how the events of the plot would unfold. I enjoyed the film as a suspense thriller but I expected more (although I’m unsure if blame should be laid at the feet of the script or the original source material).
We begin not with one tale but two. The first concerns journalist and editor of a small left wing magazine Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). The film opens with Blomkvist losing a libel case for his pubilshed accusations against billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). Unwilling to to stay with the magazine and hurt it, and his co-editor and part-time lover (Robin Wright) any further, he finds himself untethered and at a loss as to what to do next.
He’s approached by an aging former CEO (Christopher Plummer) with a proposition. Under the guise of writing his biography Henrik Vager (Plummer) offers to pay Blomkvist double his usual salary to investigate the 1966 unsolved disappearance of his great-niece Harriet (Moa Garpendal) who he is sure was killed by a member of his family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Inga Landgré, Jürgen Klein, Geraldine James, Martin Jarvis). To get Blomkvist to accept the job he sweetens the pot by offering evidence of Wennerström’s guilt once his investigation into Harriet’s disappearance is complete.
The second story involves surveillance agent and psychotic ward of the state Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Where Blomkvist tale is focused on a cold case with few leads, Lisbeth is focused on her relationship with her new guardian, a lawyer and pig of a man, named Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). It’s in this story that the film reaches its darkest moments including a sexual assault (and its repercussions) that are difficult to watch).
Once the two stories converge Blomkvist and Lisbeth begin the investigation in earnest. It turns out they work good as a couple and are able to uncover evidence, buried for more than four decdades, that will lead them to the killer.
In terms of tension and style Fincher delivers on all counts. However, his need to show the audience (and come close to revel in) Lisbeth’s sexual attack and revenge comes off unseemly and more than a little sleazy.
Without having seen the original I can’t compare Mara’s performance to Noomi Rapace, but I will say she throws herself completely into the character by providing multiple levels of Lisbeth including a genius intellect, a brutal streak, and beaten-down soul that still yearns for more than the life she’s been given. It’s a career defining role for the actress (who previously worked with Fincher in The Social Network).
I understand Zaillian and Fincher wanting to showcase Lisbeth’s tale as much as possible, and honor Larsson’s novel (which was born out of witnessing a gang rape of a 15 year-old girl), but in terms of structure the film would flow much better had the two stories been tied together far sooner. Once Lisbeth joins Blomkvist her story falls completely away, as if it was of no actual import, which makes you question if so much of the first-half of the film needed to focus on her life before being brought in on the case.
The film does make a few tweaks to the original tale (or so those who have read the novel tell me) in terms of changing the final fate of Harriet. It also shortens Blomkvist’s revenge of Wennerström which feels more like an effort to help set-up events for the next film than an attempt to wrap up the dangling storylines of this plot.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far from Fincher’s best work, but, if you have the stomach for the more brutal sequences, it is definitely worth watching. The investigation into the unsolved murder works better for me than Lisbeth’s storyline, but both are well-paced threads to an overall tale focused primarily on the sleazy underbelly of the world, hidden from the eyes of most by pretense, filled with sexual deviancy and sexual aggression towards women.
I can see why the series has become such a best seller and why there have been two films adapted from the original novel in just three years. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t tempt me to pick up the novels, but I do wonder if the sequels (which we know are coming) won’t flow a bit better now that Blomkvist and Lisbeth, and their relationship, have been well-established here. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.