Two questions have haunted David Fincher’s much-anticipated American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: will it be worth the wait? and is there really a reason to make it in the first place? Well, now that it is here, it’s safe to say that the answer to the first is that it most definitely was worth the wait: it is a relentlessly dark movie about relentlessly dark people with mysterious and dark histories. And it is brilliant. As to the second question, which begs the notion of whether Fincher could add anything new to the visualization that the 2009 Swedish version did not (other than a far greater budget), I was willing to bet that America’s greatest stylist could manage to make it his own in some sort of way. And I think I’d win that bet also.
Follow me past the Koslicue for a comparison of both films.
Fincher’s take on the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy turns out to be less Se7en and more Zodiac, not so much the thriller as the pulsating, slowing unwinding, inexorable mystery, which is exactly what Larsson’s book, with its vast complexities of financial malfeasance, familial discord, and cryptic clues, is in the first place. The director begins, as the book and the Swedish film both do, by presenting the acute reason for trying to unravel a cold case now 40 years old, the arrival of a birthday gift. What follows this brief moment is a title sequence, over Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that is surreal and haunting and rather frightening as it sets up some of the uglier backstory in enigmatic, Rorschach images. Once free of this nightmare, though, Fincher moves somewhat more conventionally.
Using a palette of white and gray and light gray and dark gray and several other shades of gray, (to which he generously adds some sepia when he moves indoors) Fincher shows us a part of Sweden trapped in a never-ending frozen state that one character not too inaccurately calls “the North Pole.” Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish film, opted for a less restrictive palette, even allowing (gasp) sunshine to penetrate his Hedeby Island. Not so Fincher, whose island is in a snowstorm when Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) arrives at the behest of the patriarch of the powerful Vanger family, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to try to solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance forty years ago and it never seems to stop. The one notable exception to the dull color scheme is the bright, modern sharpness of the home of the Martin Vanger, the missing girl's brother, and Fincher has his own ironic reasons for that choice. The otherwise ubiquitous dull gray is reflected in the life that the Vangers are living, shut up on what might once have been their island retreat but now has become more of a prison: practically none of them likes any of the others and no one speaks to anyone else, the perfect self-punishment for what Henrik calls “the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet.” It also reflects the painstaking search for the answers here. They do not swoop in conveniently: they are pieced together slowly from old photographs and opaque diary entries and decades-old hotel receipts. This is real investigative journalism, even if it is aided by a tech whiz with access to anything she wants.
Plummer does what he can with an undemanding role, and Stellan Skarsgård shines as one of the members of the Vanger clan, but Craig’s performance is revelatory. In every film he is in we see his strength as well as his vulnerability, and both are at play here. Blomkvist comes to Hedeby on the heels of a trumped-up libel conviction, and in Craig’s face and eyes can be read his character’s ambivalence about whether he even goes on writing. While Michael Nyqvist portrays this character fairly well in the Swedish film, his performance remains oddly distant from the viewer: we do not get a chance to live inside of Blomkvist’s mind as we watch him go through his difficulties (which include attempts on his life). The result is something that we can believe and appreciate and even enjoy, but that does not seem complete. Craig’s far more emotional, more vulnerable performance gives us that intimacy. When he has been shot, the audience can feel the pain of the wound. When he realizes—too late—that he has made a terrible mistake, it only takes a glance at a knife to show us the horror he is feeling.
The biggest question going into this film, of course, was whether Rooney Mara’s performance as emotionally damaged hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander could be anywhere near as strong and memorable as the already-iconic one created by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version. The answer, with no offense to Rapace, is absolutely yes, but it is complicated. The two actresses and their directors create the character in very different ways. Rapace, who allows more of the natural feminine of her face to remain visible and unshadowed, for all of her smallness and thinness stays distinctly female throughout the film. Even in the most horrific scene (in both films), the rape and revenge sequence with her “guardian,” she manages a small feminine smile as she finishes her revenge telling him not to move or what she is doing to him “won’t look nice.” Her vulnerability comes from being a young woman in a man’s world, a woman who has been hurt many, many times by many, many men. When she gives herself to Blomkvist in one scene, it is a brief, entirely sexual encounter, over the second it is complete. And she remains in control the whole time.
In contrast, Mara hides more of her face in shadow through the angles in which she turns her body, behind her forbidding piercings, and (most notably) behind an ever-morphing head of hair that either pulls attention away or covers part of it intentionally, leaving herself more unknown, more of a mystery. She is a riddle: her clothing gives nothing at all away of gender; her lifestyle gives nothing away of the genius she possesses. The only part of Mara’s Lisbeth that lives on the surface is her anger. It is always right there, waiting to explode. Mara’s Lisbeth is a wild animal keeping herself in line by sheer strength of will. She has developed a tremendous capacity for compartmentalization; otherwise she would certainly be institutionalized. It is never clearer than in the revenge scene. Rapace’s Lisbeth cannot wait to zap her assailant with a stun gun; Mara’s has a plan and will carry it out as dispassionately as possible…until she gets him trussed and vulnerable, the way he had her. The she can let the animal loose. And no sweet tones in her voice when she tells him not to move or it won’t look good. She practically hisses it.
Nonetheless, within a few scenes, she’s in bed with a woman. And within not too many more scenes, she’s in bed with Blomkvist, where she allows herself to become fully the woman, fully the partner in the experience, even while shutting herself off emotionally. Compartmentalizing. It has become as natural to her as her photographic memory or her hacking skills. It helps her survive. It can be argued that Rapace shows this capacity too, but not to this extent. And that is one of the defining distinctions between the characterizations. Another is the sheer urgency of Mara’s characterization, as well as her clear vulnerability, which comes out in many places during the film. Mara’s Lisbeth is vulnerable for a different reason than Rapace’s though: she has methodically destroyed the feminine within her unless she wants it there, so now she is vulnerable because she is the unwanted. What she has made herself into is exactly what society does not want. Both actresses are small and thin, though each shows herself capable of putting up a good fight, and it seems clear after watching both of them that whichever had come first would have been seen as the archetype for the character.
I’ve read reviews online that find fault with Fincher for his use of the book’s final chapters (which bring to a conclusion the convoluted and fairly arcane financial matters that got Blomkvist into trouble at the book’s start), which Oplev’s version merely glossed over. But, although it does seem a bit of an anticlimax, I won’t fault him for this. I’d rather fault Oplev for cutting the entire relationship between Blomkvist and his partner at Millennium magazine, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), an error that caused no end of havoc in the subsequent films of the series. I might question a pretty significant alteration to the ending that readers of the book will notice right away and wonder why Fincher felt it necessary. (Oplev managed it.) But the bottom line is that this big budget American version of the Swedish popular novel is well worth seeing, whether or not you’ve seen the Swedish version. Here's hoping audiences reward Fincher's effort so that we can see what he does with the considerably less confining storyline of the second novel.