Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books have already been adapted for the movies once, in three Swedish films starring Noomi Rapace as the brilliant, tormented Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. But writer Steve Zaillian (Moneyball) and director David Fincher (The Social Network) have tackled the material again, and done very well by it.
The new feature stars Rooney Mara (who had a small part in Social Network) as Lisbeth and Daniel Craig as Mikael in a stylish, disturbing and well-paced thriller that recalls earlier Fincher works such as Fight Club and Se7en in its blend of visual style with grim content.
Running more than 2› hours, not counting the credits, the film still keeps your attention, not least because it is juggling so many characters (though some remain sketchier than in Larsson’s novel) and pushing forward multiple mysteries at once. Indeed, Mikael and Lisbeth follow seemingly separate narrative paths for more than an hour before they finally meet.
The core mystery involves industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), still haunted by the death of his niece Harriet 40 years earlier, and determined to find her killer. Mikael, meanwhile, is at loose ends after a scandal has destroyed his journalism career, so he accepts Vanger’s very well-paying offer to investigate Harriet’s death. And that has him digging into places that others in the Vanger clan would prefer were left covered.
Lisbeth overlaps briefly with Mikael when she is asked to do a background check on him before Henrik will hire him. But she has plenty of issues in her own life stemming from her being a ward of the Swedish court — which restricts her freedom even as she longs for it. But even as she tries to overcome her own problems, she is drawn into Mikael’s orbit. And her own investigative skills (some of which are illegal) combine with his efforts to find a killer.
More to the story
But one of the challenges of Dragon Tattoo, whether on the page or on the screen, is that finding the killer is not the end of the story. There are still other elements to be dealt with, such as Mikael’s old scandal, so the film goes past the point where a more conventional film might have ended. But that movement is still entertaining, since it brings more insight into Lisbeth and Mikael and the complications of their relationship.
I have read the Larsson books and seen the Swedish films, and others who have done likewise will note some narrative differences and tonal ones. Rapace’s Lisbeth, for example, was defined by her rage, which was based on the repeated abuse life had brought to her. (And the new film vividly re-creates one of the worst moments of abuse.) Mara’s Lisbeth is not vulnerable — she can be as ferocious as Rapace — but she reveals hurt as well as anger, and that hurt is what makes the ending of the new Dragon Tattoo heartbreaking. Craig, meanwhile, seems a little more manly than the print Mikael, and not as slimy in his dealings with women as Nyqvist did. Craig’s Mikael is not entirely deserving of our sympathy; he is still far less than admirable when dealing with women.
That’s important because so much of the movie is about violence against women, not only physical violence, although that is graphically presented, but also the emotional violence of neglect and domination by men. While Mikael’s abuse of women is not physical, he still seems indifferent to women’s feelings, or at least unwilling to consider those feelings.
Finding the drama
But the cinematic virtues of the new Dragon Tattoo include not only the performances but also the way Fincher and Zaillian have figured out how to make dramatic something that is for long stretches a search for data. Fincher showed how well he can make visual richness out of masses of dialogue in presenting Aaron Sorkin’s script for Social Network: Here he makes the search for information rich by constantly changing the way we see things, from old pieces of paper to black-and-white photos to images on a laptop screen, TV screens and shots from security cameras, and from shifts in and out of extreme close-ups on the characters’ faces. The changing pictures are also a way of keeping the audience off balance, and of making the increasingly obvious path toward the killer more diverting.
One thing the new Dragon Tattoo does not do is push hard toward a sequel. To be sure, there are some stories left untold, including the details of Lisbeth’s past. But this film seems more self-contained than previous versions. Not that I don’t want to see Mara and Craig working with Fincher on more films. Dragon Tattoo is more than good enough to make me — and, I hope, you — want more from this team.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and Twitter. He also does a weekly video chat for Ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.