The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo review

Whenever Hollywood decides to give the remake treatment to a successful European film the outcry is immediate and predictable: “The original is perfect, leave it alone!”, “Too soon!”, “Americans are too stupid to read subtitles!”. Personally I’ve never had a problem with remakes. Unless Hollywood comes round my house to confiscate and incinerate my copy of the original film, then Hollywood can do what it likes as far as I’m concerned. Yet the outcry over the remake of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime thriller was a little muted this time round, and that was probably because of two words: David Fincher. Since his recent brush with Oscar (thanks to The Social Network) some feel that this material is beneath him, as if he hadn’t already made two previous “serial killers and research” films in Zodiac and Se7en (hooray for sexily lit libraries!). And like 2010‘s Let Me In, Fincher’s film is the rare example of a Hollywood remake that ends up being slightly better than the already very good Scandinavian version, which must have the original directors screaming “FUCK EVERYTHING!” before flipping their desks over, but it’s nice for the rest of us.

This paragraph shall henceforth be known as The One That Contains The Plot. You want to skip it? Permission granted. When investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) loses a disastrous libel case against a wealthy businessman, he’s asked by a mysterious elderly industrialist (Plummer) to visit a remote island to investigate the murder of his niece who disappeared back in the 60’s. Plummer reveals the island is also home to a collection of “thieves, misers, bullies - the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet: my family”, and they’re all suspects. Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is a bisexual, antisocial hacker (excuse me I appear to have gone back to the 90’s) with a photographic memory who initially provides the background check on Craig for Plummer, but who eventually joins forces with him to investigate the murder.  

Now I haven’t read the book (screw you, research!) but the differences between this film and the original are numerous and almost all for the better. To begin with the whole thing is shot in glorious Fincher-vision, its lush, sleek cinematography resulting in a film with an even stronger sense of place than the Swedish original, and fully justifying Fincher’s decision not to relocate the story to the US (Fincher made a Harvard campus vaguely haunting in The Social Network, so predictably he works wonders with the Swedish landscape here). Fincher and screenwriter Zaillian have also tightened up the storytelling. The film intercuts between Mara and Craig’s separate lines of investigation more nimbly, and actually brings the pair together earlier than in the original. Extraneous and confusing plot details, such as Blomkvist’s childhood link to the island, are excised, and the film is deftly edited to create much more forward momentum, so that it never drags during its luxurious two and a half hour running time.

The film’s biggest strength however is in its two main characters and their relationship. Fincher is famous for being a hard taskmaster inclined to insist on multiple takes, but it seems to have brought out the best in Craig, who gives his most naturalistic performance in years as the crusading journalist and middle-aged dad who is unprepared for the dark turns his investigation takes (although I hope for the sake of the actors involved that Fincher didn’t require 40 takes for the scene with the gold dildo). Craig also sports a diverse collection of knitwear that will have the more suggestible among you racing to your nearest River Island (I see you eyeballing this chunky cardigan I’m wearing, but actually I’ve had it for ages so you can shut up).

Mara excels as the damaged, feminist avenging angel, her tiny frame combining with her bleached eyebrows and dyed black hair with chopped fringe to create a character who is at once intimidating - you really don’t want to fuck with her - but also vulnerable. The “Fuck you you fucking fuck” T-shirt she wears at one point has also become my new catchphrase, which came as a shock to my elderly aunt over Christmas. In fact the visual design of Salander is so strong (it renders the obvious punk/goth stylings of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film instantly dated) that you might wonder if it’s the main reason the character is so effective, but I don’t think that’s the case: Mara conveys the self-reliance but also the sadness and resignation of a young woman for whom abuse at the hands of men has been an ever present factor in her life. Her relationship with Craig, at first tentative and distrusting, but gradually becoming more affectionate, is a joy to watch, and leads to (minor spoiler klaxon!) the kind of sex scene that critics always say they want: one that drives both story and character forward (although I take issue with anyone that claims Sasha Grey’s sex scene with the plumber in Gang Bang My Face 3 wasn’t essential to the plot: that washing machine wasn’t going to fix itself).

Some have argued that by making the character a little more vulnerable, and more emotionally attached to Craig, they have made her less “empowered” but I’m not so sure. If anything the relationship rang more true to me, though for more on this subject or indeed the film’s treatment of violence towards women in general, you should probably consult someone who doesn’t zero in on Mara’s naked bottom like the fucking Terminator.

It’s strange then that, despite the film’s undoubted success as a thriller, it hasn’t exactly set the box office alight. I wonder if that’s partly because so many people are familiar with the story via the book or the previous film that Fincher’s version feels a couple of years too late to really capture the Zeitgeist. Or maybe it’s because the film occupies an awkward middle ground between the visceral Se7en and the more cerebral Zodiac: Larsson’s book may fancy itself as a meditation on the evil that men do, or Sweden’s Nazi-sympathising past, but personally I see that as background dressing for what is a deliciously effective potboiler. 1995 Fincher might have pumped up the B-movie thriller elements a little more, and included something like The Greatest Foot Chase Ever Filmed from Se7en, but I don’t think 2011 Fincher is interested. He’s more interested in, say, the admittedly brilliant scene of Salander nursing Blomkvist’s head-wound after he’s been shot. But in any event, this is still the definitive cinematic take on Lisbeth Salander.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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