Pain is Pleasure

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ★★★★
(USA/Sweden/UK/Germany, 158 min.)
Dir. David Fincher, Writ. Steven Zaillian
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson.
The opening titles for this new Daniel Craig movie resemble the introductory interlude of a James Bond movie. Instead of offering naked ladies dancing with guns in silhouette, though, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo appropriately offers a cyber-punk rock chic aesthetic. Keyboards and faces melt into goopy black plastic. It’s all very sleek, cool, and mysterious; moreover, as set to Karen O’s bombastic, anthemic, and excellent cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, in collaboration with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo immediately asserts the up yours girl-power flair missing from the 2010 Swedish adaptation. 

As a fan of the Swedish film and the novels, I must say that this new adaptation directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) surpasses the original. One can still appreciate both films in their own right, though, since there is simply so much to work within the novels by the late Stieg Larsson. There is also so much to be improved upon, too, for while Larsson’s novels are a great read and arguably a step above most popular fiction, they had ample room for perfection.

Die-hard fans of the novels need not begrudge Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) either, since this film is quite faithful to the plot and characters of the novel. Not wanting delve into tiresome fidelity criticism, one must acknowledge the film’s attempt to be respectful to the content of the novel, especially since Fincher is far less reverential than his predecessor in handling Larsson’s tale. The success of this new take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that Fincher is simply a better filmmaker than Larsson is a writer. Gone is the unnecessarily long exposition of the novel (and the Swedish film), as well as the excessive descriptions and glacial pacing.

Fincher’s Tattoo is a more tightly told tale of Lisbeth Salander, the asocial computer hacker heroine of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. It also accentuates the sadism of Larsson’s prose: if viewers thought the rape scenes were graphic in the Swedish film, they will have to invent a new word to describe Fincher’s realization of Lisbeth’s pain. What the director adds, though, is a level of thrilling perversity to this story of men who hate women. Of particular note is a scene in which a victim is tortured to the tune of Enya’s “Sail Away” – it’s perhaps the most pleasing use of incongruous music since Christian Bale butchered Jared Leto with an axe to the tune of “It’s Hip to be Square” in American Psycho. The violence is not too overbearing, either, for its most graphic when Lisbeth inflicts pain on others, rather than when she is being victimized herself.
As with any of the director’s films, Tattoo is an undeniably well-crafted film: the steely cinematography and the efficient editing both deserve top marks for ensuring this is a sharp and brisk rendering of the first film in the trilogy. The wall-to-wall soundtrack by Reznor and Ross probably deserves the highest grade, though, for their beepy techno-pop score captures the cutting-edge nature of Lisbeth’s character; it also amplifies the sense of paranoia in the film, which is the dominant tone in a Fincher film. Few scores add as palpable a sense of unease as Reznor/Ross’s work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The “girl” herself will also have viewers on the edge of their seats. Rooney Mara (whom you might remember from her brief appearance in The Social Network) is just as good in the role of Lisbeth as Noomi Rapace was in the three Swedish adaptations. Considering the quick legion of devotees that followed Rapace’s work, I think that says a lot. Mara plays Lisbeth differently than Rapace did, too, so disciples of Rapace need not go in for the kill as originally expected. Mara delivers. While Rapace gave a hardened, more outwardly defiant Lisbeth, Mara plays Lisbeth as the victim society made her. This Lisbeth is quieter, more exposed – watch how Mara twitches when a man approaches. (The original Swedish title is for Dragon Tattoo is Men who Hate Women, after all.) Moreover, although Mara plays up Lisbeth’s vulnerability with her petite frame, she also amplifies the hacker’s aggression, allowing Lisbeth to turn on a dime. Mara’s dark, direct gaze brings out the sociopathic undertones of her character, especially in the jarring scenes where Lisbeth repudiates the victim role. (To steal a phrase from Margaret Atwood.) Mara iss fun as Lisbeth, too, and she relieves the tension with her droll monotone and quick timing.
She plays well off co-star Daniel Craig, who is well cast in the role of reporter Mikael Blomkvist. The suave spy skills from Craig’s Bond days tailor him for the part, making him a better, more believable fit than his predecessor was. Not that Michael Nyqvist was bad, but Craig has the necessary carefreeness the role demands, showing that one brings out the best in Larsson’s work if one does not take it too seriously. Likewise, Christopher Plummer is amiably light-hearted as Henrik Vanger, the wealthy industrialist who hires Blomkvist to investigate his family. Vanger believes that one of his relations murdered his niece Harriet back in the sixties and has been tormenting him for decades. Equally good as the fellow Vangers are Stellan Skarsgard (the token Swede in the cast) as Harriet’s brother Martin, Geraldine James as her cousin Connie (one of the roles more noticeably reduced from the novel/Swedish film), and especially Joely Richardson as cousin Anita, who shows off her Redgrave pedigree with a fine monologue towards the film’s end. Rounding out the great supporting cast are Robin Wright as Erika, Blomkvist’s partner and lover, and Yorick van Wageningen (The Way) as Lisbeth’s slimy guardian.

Fincher’s handling brings out the best of Larsson’s story, especially its use of technology and its sense of paranoia. As always with Fincher’s films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a cold movie, although Larsson’s novels could be described similarly. As with all takes on this tale, however, it’s all about Lisbeth herself: I was wrong to doubt Mara. I can’t wait to see how she and Fincher do The Girl who Played with Fire.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is currently playing in wide release.