The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher directs the American version of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish novel, tackling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish adaptation from 2009. This 2011 picture is a brilliant piece of mood and an exercise in detective and crime tropes. It is a tight, well-polished picture that packs powerful performances and true grit into its muscular 158 minutes.

Fincher is perhaps the director best suited to tackling this material for an American release. His use of dark tones and his tenacity when it comes to getting at the shadowy components of human nature makes him ideal for delving into the ice and snow of Larsson’s tale. Fincher also knows his characters and creates a compelling study of Larsson’s two protagonists, weaving their interlocking tales expertly.

Daniel Craig is well cast as Mikael Blomkvist, the co-owner of the Swedish magazine Millennium. He has recently lost a libel case after trying to go after the elusive businessman Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). One day, a Swedish business magnate named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) calls Blomkvist to his island home to help him investigate the apparent murder of his granddaughter Harriet.

Prior to hiring Blomkvist, Vanger made use of the services of one Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). She dug deep into Blomkvist’s life. Upon finding out about the research project into his life, Blomkvist insists that he wants Salander on his team to help discover what happened to Harriet and the unlikely pair takes to the Vanger case together.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a sort of old-fashioned locked room mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, so the elements are all in place for a series of wonderfully chilling acts. The layers of feminism, Nazism and hacker culture are merely adornments on the fairly straightforward plot, but the elements do help set Fincher’s film apart from other genre pictures.

The credit largely goes to Larsson’s book series, though. It also partially goes to the original Swedish picture, which I prefer only marginally to Fincher’s version. That film was less refined and the characters seemed closer to the bone, whereas Craig and Mara feel slightly sleeker. That’s not a knock on their performances, mind you, but a personal opinion as to the approach of Fincher’s glossy project.

Regardless, Fincher’s vision is elegant and the film is near-perfect. From the dazzling Bond-like opening credit sequence to the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is electrifying entertainment. It is the stuff that Hollywood doesn’t put out too often, a daring and legitimately edgy (NOT Twilight edgy) motion picture that hearkens back to days of dark mysteries and darker characters.

Fincher also elects to give his two protagonists a bit more running room on separate tracks, which means we get to see Mara and Craig set themselves up before drawing themselves together. This allows Mara to shine in the chilling scenes with her repugnant guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), achieving alternating flows of rage and childlike vulnerability. The rape scene is hard to watch, creating a sort of delicious terror when she gets her inevitable vengeance.

Craig is a nice fit for the role, but his polish leaves him almost too in control of the situation on the island. He never looks in over his head and, truth be told, always looks a little too 007 for the part. The Bondian intro solidifies this, but the actor is game for everything and still incredibly fun to watch.

It is hard to fault Fincher’s movie, as good as it is, but the comparison point is there and the Swedish version is slightly better. This is a nice introduction for those looking to get into the Larsson story and, in particular, one Lisbeth Salander, who is a hell of a lot more captivating and feminine than any Bella Swan or Anastasia Steele (or mishmash of the two) could ever hope to be.


5 thoughts on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

  1. I haven’t seen the original Swedish version, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the American movie followed the book, with the exception of the drastic change of the ending.

  2. [Spoiler Alert] Personally I was underwhelmed by the Swedish original. As much as I loved Noomi Rapace’s performance as Salander, I didn’t really buy into the supposedly ‘muted’ and more ‘authentic’ reality of things. The novels kind of demanded something like what Fincher has delivered hear. A glossy thriller, that manfully tries to rein in it’s more operatic leaps into the darkness of the novels. The testing point for me comes with the approach to conclusions, both deviate from the novel source, but whereas the Swedish version presents us with a plausibly mundane psychopath, Fincher goes for an eerily chilling sodium light sequence, in which Skarsgaard is allowed to release his inner sadist – whilst Fincher gets to subvert the cliched ‘I’m going to kill you and here’s how’ speech, of bad action movie infamy. The Swedish version looked like a classy television adaptation of a mildly exciting thriller, whereas Fincher’s cinematic artistry (all surface pleasures), seemed to mainline far more of the frayed edges of Larsson’s work. Totally agree with you on the Daniel Craig front though. Hollywood has a string of exciting late-30’s/early-40’s actors on their hands right now (Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Michael Fassbender), with Craig being at the front of them.

    1. Hey, great to hear from you again.

      For me, the gloss was somewhat of a problem. Larsson’s book isn’t overly glossy and his Blomkvist isn’t an overly smooth, Bond-esque protagonist. Fincher’s film, however, transports the shuffling nature of Mikael into sharper territory and, for my money, abandons some of the “Swedishness” of the story. I get that it’s an American adaptation, so the tact works to that effect. But for my preference, the icy chill of Oplev’s version is slightly better.

      Then there’s the matter of the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael, something that’s given much more weight in Oplev’s version. Their confusing and confused love affair is more distant in the Swedish version, which, in my view, falls more in line with Lisbeth’s emotionally unavailable, dark character.

      I also though the identity of the villain was more obscured in Oplev’s version, whereas Fincher’s use of lighting and some fairly suggestive tells make the revelation less of a surprise. And Lisbeth’s guardian is given much more consequence and, let’s face it, hideousness in those vital scenes in the Swedish version. The American picture makes him more humane, which is, in my opinion, a bit of a mistake when it comes to the impact of the inevitable revenge sequence.

      Also, the conclusion of the picture in its Swedish incarnation follows the book more closely as it goes “down under” to achieve a critical plot point. Fincher skips this and streamlines it by pulling a bit of a switcheroo, which, it could be argued, is less tedious and clunky that Larsson’s sometimes tedious and clunky novel. It also somewhat feels like a cop-out.

      Again, these differences are slight in my view. But they are there and I found myself just barely preferring the Swedish picture.

    2. I liked the Swedish version when it came out, preferred the American when I saw it but then on re-viewing the Swedish soon after found that my preference had reversed. Not only did the Oplev version gain in the second viewing but its starker harsher take on the Girl as well as the other characters and maybe it was because it didn’t come off as polished as the Fincher that the threats and violence seemed more graphic. But overall the Swedish felt more organic,more true to life, with the main characters not having that Hollywood image baggage and even more that they looked more like real people. But ultimately it comes down to Salmander who is kind of pretend bisexual and bad girl in the Fincher (playing to the demographic?) but Oplev’s is a real presence.

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