Based on a massive bestseller which has already been made into a solid Swedish film, David Fincher's new adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tries to offer something fresh to audiences all too familiar with the material. Since the publication of Stieg Larsson's first novel of his Millennium trilogy, the story about the middle-aged investigative journalist, and the punk genius-girl computer hacker, has become a bit of an eye-rolling cliché.
If anyone could recharge the story, it should be Fincher. The director has a proven aptitude for stories of perversity and sin-obsessed serial killers ( Se7en, Zodiac), and seems more than qualified to take Larsson's ungainly pop-culture monster, with its sick thrills and moral fervor, and wrestle it into a into a taut, adrenalin-delivering movie experience.
Not too surprisingly, Fincher doesn't bring his auteur A-game here, though his crafty B-game is better than most. As well, the break-out performance of Rooney Mara as the semi-feral computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, gives the film a residue of authentic anguish. In contrast to Swedish actress Noomi Rapace's performance of the character which was filled with coiled defiance, the waifish Mara captures Lisbeth as the wounded angry child, hunched, jittery and avoiding eye contact.
The film as a whole feels efficient more than bold. At 158 minutes, it's long, but never feels slow, grabbing your attention right from the beginning with the barrage of jagged graphics of the opening credit sequence, accompanied by Karen O's nerve-scraping cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song. Steve Zaillian's script gets the story in motion briskly: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), publisher of the Stockholm investigative magazine, Millennium, is disgraced and bankrupt when he loses a libel case brought against him by a crooked tycoon (Ulf Friberg). He soon says goodbye to his editor, and casual lover, Erika (Robin Wright), to take a job from a savvy old industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who promises him both a payday and a chance to get revenge on the man who brought him down.
Though the gig is ostensibly to write Vanger's memoir, it's really about solving the decades-old disappearance of the old man's 16-year-old niece. Soon, Mikael is secluded in a cottage on the Vanker family's wintry island estate, where he gradually meets members of the fractious extended Vanger family of Nazis, drunks and recluses (think of them as the Anti-Social Network). The most civilized of the lot appears to be Martin (Stellan Skarsgaard), who now runs the vast family company.
On a separate narrative track back in Stockholm, we follow the story of Lisbeth, a skinny pierced punk sleuth who Vanger's lawyer originally hired to do a background check on Blomkvist. At 24, but looking like a malnourished 13-year-old boy whose head has had a mishap with some hedge clippers, Lisbeth is a brilliant sleuth but also a ward of the state due to supposed mental-health issues. Her obese, patronizing, new state-appointed guardian (Yorick van Wageningen) begins to exploit her sexually and coercion escalates to violent assault. Lisbeth responds with a rape revenge scenario that, while not making a lot of practical sense, has some hair-raising biblical justice. In both the scene of the rape and its matching revenge, Fincher's camera keeps a watchful, non-prurient distance.
All this sets up the eventual meeting (almost an hour and a half into the film) between the two damaged protagonists, Mikael and Lisbeth, when he hires her to help make sense of a series of unsolved brutal sexual murders. Craig, handsome but reporter-schlubby, downplays his charisma nicely, to an avuncular charm, in Blomkvist's relationship with the prickly Salander. It is about the only human warmth the film offers. The actual sleuthing process – interviews, photo analyses and unlikely leaps of logic – can't escape Larsson's rudimentary plotting, though Zaillian astutely snipped off some of Larsson's narrative threads.
The odd variety of strong, weak and non-existent Swedish accents is only slightly distracting at first, and eventually, the speech styles seem almost a reflection of character. Curiously, it is the cast's major Swedish actor, Skarsgaard, who sounds the most American, which does nothing to undermine the power of his performance. While fans may argue for years over the superiority of Team Noomi or Team Rooney, Skarsgaard's version of Martin Vanger tops both the book and the previous adaptation. He brings the story a much-needed sardonic zest for evil.
Larsson's faithful fans may demur, but it seems questionable whether the Millennium novels are really worthy of the talent of Fincher and his cast for the next two films in the series. But give credit for what it is: If you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, at least you can create a snazzy studded leather belt.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Directed by David Fincher
- Written by Steve Zaillian
- Starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara
- Classification: 18A
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in theatres on Wednesday.