Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (David Fincher, 2011)

Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s three posthumously published Millennium novels are an international sensation and already were made into a film trilogy in his native country.  Now comes the first in a presumed American remake trilogy with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a libel case and is likely on the verge of losing his magazine when wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) approaches him with a tantalizing offer.  Vanger will pay him a tidy sum and provide damaging information about the businessman who defeated Blomkvist in court.  In return Blomkvist will come to the Vanger family’s island estate under the guise of writing their history while his real work is investigating the disappearance of Henrik’s niece Harriet nearly forty years earlier.  Vanger believes a family member killed her and is continuing to taunt him by sending pressed flowers, which Harriet used to give him on his birthday.

Meanwhile, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who did the background check on Blomkvist, finds her well-being subject to the whims of a newly appointed guardian.   Although in her twenties, Lisbeth remains a ward of the state because of a diagnosis of mental incompetence.  She eventually teams up when Blomkvist needs a researcher and is directed to her.
Having seen the Swedish film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it’s somewhat difficult to approach director David Fincher’s take on the pulpy mystery without recognizing how remarkably similar the two are.  Perhaps out of allegiance to the popular source material, both films are crammed with more plot than feels necessary and seem as though they always have just one more thing to wrap up.  The central mystery struggles to sustain interest because Blomqkvist and Salander are sorting through an information dump rather than mixing it up much with the suspects in the Vanger clan.  Nevertheless, Fincher directs the dickens out of scenes involving research with computers, archival records, photographs, and personal mementos.

The story is mostly the pits in both, but Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO fixes some of its predecessor’s problems and is clearly the superior of the two.  Although slightly longer than the other, this adaptation cuts through the narrative details like a hot knife through butter.  That it plays more efficiently while taking more time indicates editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s skill at keeping a brisk pace.

This time around Lisbeth is more of a person, and a highly damaged one at that, than the cartoon avenger she’s positioned as in the Swedish version.  Mara plays her as a feral animal taking tentative steps toward socialization.  Taking this angle on the character makes a big difference in explaining the dubious sexual relationship that develops between Lisbeth and Mikael.  Whereas Mikael’s irresistible magnetism in the Swedish film reeks of authorial wish fulfillment, Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO shows Lisbeth initiating this contact as her attempt to crack her shell while still asserting control.  Likewise, the suffering and revenge she experiences, while still horrific, are less exploitative under Fincher’s command.

Despite these improvements, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO can’t quite transcend its junk foundation or, at least for me, the familiar beats of the other adaptation.  Applying the sheen of cinematic quality to a lurid airport novel only goes so far when the cheap thrills have lost some luster because they’ve already been had.

Grade: C+

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