‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’: Tat-too late

December 19, 2011

Given that the Swedish film of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is pretty damn good, was it really necessary for Hollywood to weigh in with its own version?

Of course. Not to do so would be leaving money on the table.

There are millions of Americans who have devoured Larsson’s mega-best-selling book – and the rest of his trilogy – who would never dream of submitting themselves to a Swedish movie with subtitles. That same mass audience would dearly love to see a movie version – and there are millions more who woud watch it without even reading the books.

So the question is not why Hollywood would make its own version; rather, the “duh” question is – why wouldn’t they? Not to do so seems counterintuitive.

Which is why we now are confronted with David Fincher’s version of the Larsson novel. But Fincher, aside from a few visual fillips, has not cracked this novel in a new way or plumbed it for previously undiscovered depths. His visual approach is different, but not so much that the material seems newly revealed.

Is Fincher’s film better than Niels Arden Oplev’s? Not really. It’s different; it’s probably as good as the Swedish version. But better? Nope, sorry – which brings us back to the issue of the movie as a commodity, rather than an artistic vision.

I’m not impugning Fincher’s intentions; I’m just saying that, as good as his film may be, it’s redundant and unnecessary.

Is it entertaining and well-made? Absolutely. For the audience that would never dream of seeing a foreign film, this movie will be the last word in “Dragon Tattoo” movie-making. And they’ll get a quality product.

Working from a script by Steve Zaillian (who made a few different choices than the writers for the Swedish film did in distilling Larsson’s sprawling novel), Fincher wastes no time getting into the nuts-and-bolts of the plot. It is initially a parallel set of stories: one involving a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the other focusing on a punk computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara – and that character’s last name is pronounced suh-LAHN-der).

Blomkvist runs a left-wing magazine called Millennium – and has just been convicted of libeling an international corporate head, after being fed false information. Was it a set-up? It doesn’t matter; he lost and it’s going to cost him his life savings and, perhaps, sink the magazine. Then he gets a financial lifeline: an offer to work for an aging industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). The cover story is that Blomkvist is writing Vanger’s memoirs; in fact, Vanger wants Blomkvist to employ his investigative skills to solve a 40-year-old murder, of Vanger’s niece.

To vet Blomkvist, Vanger’s lawyer hires a security firm, which employs its top investigator for the case: Salander. A tattooed, much-pierced loner, Salander has problems of her own: She’s been declared incapable of handling her own affairs because of her allegedly wild youth, and so is a ward of the state. But the guardian who has taken a lenient hand in her affairs suffers a stroke – and she winds up instead under the authority of an attorney (Yorick van Wageningen), who trades her access to her own funds for sexual favors – brutal ones. He quickly learns why she has a wasp tattooed on her neck.

As Blomkvist delves into the past of the wretched Vanger family, he uncovers a variety of secrets and, eventually, stumbles upon a clue as to what happened to the missing niece. Eventually, he decides he needs a research assistant – and winds up hiring Salander, after learning that she had delved into his own life. They become a team that clicks, both professionally and personally, even as they zero in on the member of the vicious Vanger clan who may have the answer about Harriet.

Fincher crosscuts early on between Blomkvist and Salander, utilizing insidiously metronomic music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The music drives the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, building tension even when the characters are doing something as simple as looking at photographs or surfing the web (obviously in pursuit of something, but still…).

A few quibbles about Fincher’s stylistic choices: Obviously, this is a work that is wholly identified with Sweden, its weather and its politics. So it makes sense to set it there. But the idea of having all of the characters speak English with Scandinavian accents – including the Norwegian Swedish Stellan Skarsgard and the Dutch van Wageningen – seems like an affectation.

Also: Early on, almost all of the newspaper and magazine headlines we see are in Swedish, though the news crawl on the 24-hour TV news stations are in English. And when Blomkvist and Salander go back to look at newspaper archives from the period of the niece’s murder and earlier, they find newspapers with English headlines. It’s a quibble. But still… And I won’t go into the way they’ve changed the climax of the mystery. It condenses the story slightly, but not at the expense of surprise.

And yet, as noted, this film feels, well, unnecessary. It’s a solid film – a well-made and highly suspenseful film. But I saw “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” last year. And it was just as good.

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