Arriving fashionably late to the party, David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a gripping, taut procedural that hypnotically shreds three hours away while elevating the source material to a breakneck state of breathless storytelling. Obviously aware of the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009, Fincher doesn't seek to outdo or compete with it in any way, instead paying respectful homage by utilizing some of what worked in the original and fleshing out some of what didn't. Fincher's resultant film is one more self-contained and narratively rich, especially as far as the main characters are concerned; in Fincher's world the reasons as to why the characters are who they are are explored in greater and more evocative detail, giving us versions of Mikal Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (the fabulous Rooney Mara) that feel more like actual people than harshly drawn archetypes. Appropriately, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has a greater emotional resonance than its Swedish forebear, opening up a new dimension to a story almost everyone knows, as well as a new textural element to Fincher's film work.
The question isn't so much whether this is a good film (it is) or even a necessary one (still not sure, as much as i like it) but rather how it differs from the original. I liked Oplev's film very much, finding it incredibly dark and atmospheric; in my mind it approached a level of quality to that found in Jonathan Demme's masterful "The Silence of the Lambs." I found myself wondering if even Fincher could do any better a job with it, growing more and more excited as its release drew near. I'm astonished at how far apart the two pieces are in composition, pace, and tone-they really do stand as two separate works from two very different directors. It could be argued that Oplev's version already dipped into the David Fincher pool; few modern directors have had so distinct and psychological a take on the serial killer template. Oplev borrowed all the grime of his "Girl" from Fincher's "Se7en" and quite a bit of its exposition from "Zodiac"; in turn Fincher seems to have borrowed the best bits of his "Girl" from another Scandinavian source, Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 film "Insomnia" (later butchered in the Americanization process by Christopher Nolan). Oplev's and Fincher's films are mirrors of one another, two faces of one coin; its evident Fincher spent some time with Oplev's film by way of some key set pieces that seem almost identical and by way of his meatier narrative exposition. For all its successes, Oplev's film was lean on plot details. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian correct that and fill out "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" to a point where every scene is crucial; one missed bit of dialogue and the whole thing comes unraveled.
The plot is labyrinthine but remarkably linear. Recently disgraced journalist Mikal Blomkvist is facing public and financial ruin as the result of a lawsuit for libel lobbied against him by a wealthy industrialist suspected of criminal activity. Blomkvist accepts an assignment from the wealthy and retired Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) on his island town of Hedestad, to root through forty years worth of private investigation and find out what happened to his niece Harriet year ago. Vanger suspects someone in his extended family of murdering Harriet; Blomkvist has the necessary skills to root out the truth. The Vanger family tree is a shitstorm of Nazis, misogynists, and abusers; as Blomkvist gets deeper into the truth he hires troubled ward of the state and hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander to assist in his research. Lisbeth, recently self-delivered of her own abusive relationship with her guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), more or less leads Mikal to the reality of what happened to Harriet. Together the two end the taint of corruption that has plagued the Vanger family in the form of prodigal son Martin (the superb Stellan Skarsgard, playing fabulously opposite his character in "Insomnia") and reunite Henrik with Harriet.
The actual investigation really only informs the latter half of the film. The majority is taken up detailing Mikal and Lisbeth's separate paths to their working together. Lisbeth's history is rife with abuse, degradation, and betrayal; her encounters with the sadistic Bjurman are just as frightening to behold here as they were in Opvel's film. Fincher has never shied from violence, preferring a realistic approach to it rather than a stylized one, and here that approach works to ensure a deeply unsettling intensity to Lisbeth's rape and revenge. Mysteriously gone is any retelling of Lisbeth's crime against her father; rather than show it in image Fincher allows Lisbeth to tell Mikal, in about two sentences, how she came to be a ward of the state. The difference in interpretation here is striking, and points to how differently the two directors actually view the character of Lisbeth; Fincher's approach to her is what makes me prefer his version.
In Opvel's film, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace) is an absolute loner with little use for anyone; her past has so destroyed and shaped her that the only defense is complete and total removal. She is severe rather than awkard, crushingly confident, and infuriatingly distant. Opvel played up all Lisbeth's hard edges and allowed for little emotion in her character; the result is a difficulty in appreciating the complexity of her relationship with Mikal (the two make love once, and it's viewed as a fluke event.) Fincher's Lisbeth is a different thing entirely, a fragile and damaged person who projects a thorny exterior to protect against a deep and continuous hurt inflicted against her by those she trusted most. As played by Mara, Lisbeth is an intensely sensitive person; her actions seems to have far more meaning and her motivations are much more clearly understood by Fincher's focus on the personality behind the facade. Her eventual relationship with Mikal is then seen in a different light, the first time Lisbeth has opened up and chosen to trust another person. When Mikal ultimately betrays that trust (as everyone in Lisbeth's life has) the emotional devastation Lisbeth feels is palpable; Fincher's portrayal ultimately answers the riddle of Mikal and Lisbeth's troubled relationship that made so little sense in the two Swedish follow up films. Mara's stunning work as Lisbeth adds to the empathy; Mara looks both haunted and hollowed, and the few moments of joy that Lisbeth experiences are warming. Fincher's Lisbeth is someone we feel for; Oplev's Lisbeth is someone who we aren't even sure feels herself.
That warmth carries over into Fincher's actual look for the film. Gone are all the harsh angles and deep focus and lurid colors of Opvel's nightmare; instead Fincher washes his Sweden out, painting a country under the throes of near endless winter. Colors are muted and soft, lights are bright and glowing. It's a huge deivatiation from the director's earlier work; even "The Social Network" was more foreboding than "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." This composition is another reference to "Insomnia," Sweden as an eternal blinding white, the ultimate blanc noir behind the Coen Brothers' "Fargo." "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" exists in a dreary haze where even the dark recesses are bathed in sickly white; interesting that so many secrets are hidden amidst so much visibility. Opvel's film had an opulence and austerity that Fincher ultimately rejects; again, his realistic approach frames the story he's trying to tell. Rather than fantasy and exaggeration, Fincher opts for reduction and believability. A character as extreme as Lisbeth cannot be rendered in caricature; Fincher's composition reflects that ideal and effectively allows us in to her world.
Earlier i raised the question of this film's necessity. It's something i'll probably never really be sure of; the issue is complicated further by the fact that i prefer this version over the Swedish one. The more i think about "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" the more i get the layering Fincher has weaved in to it; it's technically flawless film by a director at the height of his craft. Fincher's decision to allow an emotional attachment to his characters further demonstrates his sensitivity and understanding of what makes a great, unique film; while the deeper philosophical concerns found in "Se7en" or "Fight Club" are absent here, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"'s warmth and respect for its main character elevate it to a level those films had a hard time reaching. Fincher usually deals in darkness; with Lisbeth Salander he's letting in a little light. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" may not be definitive, but it's a wonderful start. Here's hoping Fincher chooses to finish out the series.