Long, fast-paced, and disconcertingly upbeat for much of its running time, the US adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is punchy genre filmmaking. Still, there’s something about it that feels weirdly off (and I don’t mean 'bad’.) I’ve read other critics who have picked up on this self-same hard to articulate feeling and they’ve dismissed it as a by-product of Hollywood Imperialism: the argument being that it’s no wonder, since the source material is so 'essentially’ Scandinavian and there’s already a culturally 'pure’ version of Stieg Larsson’s mega-seller from Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev.
The 2009 picture, which incidentally, the director insists is a Danish/Swedish production, is a fine upscale TV movie, a big worldwide hit, enlivened and enriched by a good cast and career making performance from Noomi Rapace as the movie’s title hero – a punky hacker called Lisbeth.
All of which makes, so goes the thesis, this new film, directed by David Fincher and written by Steve Zaillian, redundant and, for some sensitive souls, who want to be congratulated for their refined sensibilities, offensive.
Such comparisons are almost always odious, and superficial at least in the context of a short review, because they create an unhelpful 'good/bad" index of value, and are therefore useless as a place to start penetrating any one films mystique in an open and sensitive way. (That said I’m all too aware that watching the new pic may result for those who know Oplev’s film, an irritating 'flashback’ effect.)
But, for the record, and without aiming to impugn the relative merits of either piece, and especially for the edification of the impatient and insatiably curious, there are some strong distinctions to be made between the 2009 film and this one.
The plot is the same: disgraced left-leaning investigative journo Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), is hired by aged industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to find Vangar’s great-niece Harriet who, in 1966, disappeared without trace, from the family’s island-home, deep in Sweden’s far north, a place of horror-movie spookiness and icy beauty. Blomkvist, played by Craig with a beguiling dazed doggedness, is provided with some helpful leads from his patron: his family, says Vangar, are crazy, hateful, vindictive sods, so the assumption is that each of them is a suspect. Only one of them treats Blomkvist with any thing like respect, and he is the creepily avuncular Martin Vangar (Stellan Skarsgard). Blomkvist digs into the Vangar family history and finds Nazis, serial sex crimes against women and much confusion. Eventually Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) – a self-claiming insane punk-goth, who has been subject to sex crime (depicted here in ugly lengthy detail) is enlisted to assist Blomkvist; he needs her extraordinary skills with all things digital, and her instinct for 'Evil’; together they crack open the movie’s virtual crypt of terrible deeds and psycho-sexual nuttiness.
Oplev’s movie was gloomy, talky and saturated with a bleak sense of guilt and anguish in the face of sex crimes and corporate malfeasance; it was sceptical of all relationships and cynical about social, and political institutions, the law and media, obviously, but especially family (incest is both a plot element and a metaphor in Larsson and each film track’s this keynote faithfully).
Both movies pack in a huge amount of Larsson’s gigantic and busy plot.
But Fincher and Zaillian have a gift for the facile; this Tattoo races through complicated action but it’s the tone that’s striking; it can be quite funny, zippy, but it stays smart. The images have an elegant hard sheen and the colour palette is a seething mix of ice-white and night-black. Zaillian has filled the film with one-liners and lots of twisted stuff that’s cringe-witty, hipster-bait, as when one of the villains uses Enya’s new-age anthem Orinoco Flow as a soundtrack for some real-life torture porn.
Where Oplev’s movie seemed a bit tentative was in its thriller dimensions (he is openly ambivalent about the genre), Fincher clearly has no such qualms.
I’m not sure whether this Tattoo is any less or more 'serious’ than Oplev’s picture; but it’s vivid, and gripping moment to moment and spiked with an unabashed appreciation for genre riffs, styling’s and tropes.
But I guess, inevitably, what makes Fincher’s movie truly different is in Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth; she’s both harsher and more vulnerable than Rapace’s incarnation, still enigmatic, but savage, with an emotional indifference that’s chilling. When Blomkvist explains that its violence against women that is driving his investigation there’s a flash of recognition and spite in Lisbeth’s eyes; its excitement and longing all mashed up. It’s another way for her to resist victimhood.
In Zodiac, Fincher made a movie about the dead hand of obsession. It was a mystery without some kind of affirming solution; it never did provide that comforting jolt of conventional thrillers where evil is quieted and order restored. It’s harsh morals seem earned and therefore honest.
But its revenge that is at the centre of Tattoo’s story; revenge as redeemer, revenge as leveler; revenge as a path to dignity. In movies, revenge works. Larsson wrote about what he knew; in life, these crimes do not come with happy endings. Tattoo, is, despite the heroism of Lisbeth and Blomkvist, full of dread and despair; these wounds never heal and vengeance is finally an empty gesture. Fincher, like Oplev, can’t do much with Larsson’s ironic nihilism. The movie's sorrow is smothering.