Fincher’s ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ a significantly better version of the original

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher

Screenplay by Steven Zaillian

2011, USA

David Fincher is effectively incapable of making a bad film. Even his worst film, Alien³, is actually so well made and unique in vision that for all its problems it manages to avoid overall badness. He does seem to have a pattern though: starting with Alien³, every odd-numbered film brings “lesser” Fincher. That has held true right through from The Game and Panic Room, to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and now The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher certainly makes the most of the material he’s given, and while there is plenty to like and even love in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the film never fully transcends its source material to provide something truly special. This is “lesser” Fincher.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the bestselling Swedish novel of the same name and previously adapted into a film in its native Sweden, is straight up pulp mystery. Henrik Vanger, a very wealthy and very elderly businessman, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist for a Swedish magazine, to investigate the murder of his niece forty years earlier. The only possible suspects? The other members of Vanger’s family, of course! They all live together on a somewhat remote island, and they all have dark secrets and eccentricities. Classic stuff.

Eventually, Blomkvist brings on a research assistant in the form of Lisbeth Salander, a goth-attired, mentally disturbed girl with a knack for illegal hacking and a photographic memory. Salander, the “girl with the dragon tattoo” herself, is a fascinating character, and here, played exceptionally well by Rooney Mara, she is both incredibly strong and strong-willed while remaining believably fragile and vulnerable. The chemistry between Mara and Daniel Craig, who plays Blomkvist, is great. There is a fun playfulness between the two of them, and when they are working together to solve the murder the film fires on all cylinders.

Unfortunately the section in which they work together lasts about an hour, give or take ten minutes. That’s about 60 minutes in a 150-minute film. The first act, comprising roughly the first hour of the film, while never boring, is quite unbalanced. A good deal of time is spent on Blomkvist’s legal troubles and his randomly being hired to solve a murder mystery. It’s lot of setup even though details just aren’t that interesting.

The trouble is compounded by the parallel Salander storyline. Without any apparent connection between the two stories other than the need to eventually team her up with Blomkvist, Salander goes through an intense ordeal in which her state-assigned guardian rapes her. The Salander story in this first hour is always compelling, and Fincher does not shy away from making things as horrific as possible, but every time he cuts between Salander and Blomkvist a question is raised. “Why are we watching this?” That is never a good question to be asking and it reveals the underlying structural failure of the film. The mystery, when it’s being worked on, is great pulp fun, but everything else surrounding it just feels unnecessary.

The blame falls partly with the novel, which contains vastly more extraneous material, but given how much of that has been cut out by the film adaptation, why not go all the way? The last 30 minutes of the film suffers the same problem. It’s almost completely extraneous. It’s a long epilogue to a story that needed no epilogue at all, and there are a few moments that even undermine the development of the characters up to that point.

Fincher uses his great eye for imagery and pacing to make those first and third acts pass by without losing the audience, but even he can’t imbue greatness onto such turgid material. All of this is quite disappointing, particularly considering how good that middle section of the film is. And it really is good. Great, even. I’d venture far enough to say that the hour-long second act of the film, from the point where Blomkvist and Salander team up until when they solve the case, is right up there with Fincher’s work on Se7en and Zodiac, though admittedly more shallow.

In one sequence, for instance, Fincher shows the two characters in separate locations doing research and putting some of the final clues together. About ten minutes into this sequence it dawned that there had been almost no meaningful dialogue and mostly it was just a series of shots of pictures, computer screens, printed words and reaction shots. It was also one of the most intense and suspenseful sequences in a film all year. Saying it’s impressive would be an understatement. This is Fincher working at full strength.

There are other scenes and sequences with similar power, even within the less-than-stellar sections of the film, but when the story and script is working, David Fincher manages to truly take things to the next level. This is also the most playful Fincher has been since Zodiac. He clearly recognizes that it’s his duty to try and elevate the material. The opening credits sequence, for instance, is one of the best in ages. It has absolutely nothing to do with the film, though, and it feels tonally jammed into the calmer opening act. It’s really just Fincher deciding to do an awesome music video for Trent Reznor and Karen O’s fantastic cover of The Immigrant Song. He can do it, so why not?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sets itself as a significantly better version of the story offered in both the novel and the original Swedish film. The craft on display ranges from great to astounding, but that’s to be expected given the director. That said, he never really elevates the film. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a great film buried in the middle of a longer, more problematic film. This was somewhat unavoidable considering the popularity of the novel and the likely demand for faithfulness by fans and the studio. Still, it’s sad to see that Fincher hasn’t made another serial killer drama worthy of standing alongside Se7en and Zodiac. At least his odd/even pattern remains in tact, and hopefully that means whatever film he does next will be spectacular. As it stands, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a decent film, exceedingly well directed, but as a whole it just isn’t great.

Corey Atad

  1. J J says

    I loved the books and all versions of the movie so far. I just wish Fincher’s film would’ve stayed truer to the book. I liked Noomi Rapace’s depiction better but I also preferred Daniel Craig.

  2. Yaz says

    Great review. I think you nailed it completely. Just saw the film today and while I haven’t seen the original, I felt as you did about the opening act and its structure issues as it pertains to the film (notice that I mentioned ‘film’, not ‘series of films’).

    While I think Fincher is a master and this is still a great film, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the fragmentation the first act had on me. The mystery, as you mention in the comments, was truly the best part of the film – and that tension created by mere editing and music during those research montages just shows you how good Fincher is at what he does.

    Anyway, great read and I enjoyed reading all the comments too. Gotta check out the original now…

    On a side note, I didn’t really take to Mara’s performance… Not sure what it was, she def. grew on me as the film went on, but I didn’t find her nearly as intriguing as Craig’s character – that might just be in the writing though. Also, for a story that is so dark in its thematic content, I question why a grittier approach wasn’t utilized. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fincher’s aesthetic style, but some times I just find his images so clean and well composed, regardless of their content… Things feel the same. I really felt something like the rape scene, or even the reveal of the tattoo post rape scene, could have meant far more and been much more disturbing if it didn’t come off so damn clean.

    Anyway, I ramble. Once again – great review.

  3. tmack says

    Okay, saw Fincher’s Tattoo. I have very mixed feelings about it, although I’ll agree with you that Fincher cannot make a bad movie. That said, I don’t know why he made this one. In most all aspects, this is a duplicate of the original film, just with better cinematography and music. The tweaking he did here and there–shifting the weight ever so slightly in the Salander/Blomkvist relationship, for example–just doesn’t provide enough of a reason to remake a film that so many people have seen. Studios often make American versions of foreign films because many aren’t well known in the U.S. But Tattoo transcended its Swedishness and subtitles and we were saturated with it. It would seem to me, therefore, that if you’re going to remake it, you’d want to re-envision it some way. Set it in the upper peninsula, Maine, New Brunswick, give the story a different culture.

    About that first hour…it did drag and the protractedness created a needless gulf between Salander and Blomkvist. I didn’t feel that drag in the original at all. There’s a lot of attention to atmosphere–the weather, the bridge, traveling to and fro, and listening to Vanger’s long story about Harriet. (I think it’s also about giving big stars meaty roles. We saw more of Erika in Fincher’s version than in the original).

    I think the rape and punishment were necessary. It makes Salander’s decision to help Blomkvist with this case understandable. And, for Salander, she ultimately sees Blomkvist as a man who does not hate women and whose impulse is not to use and defile them. The rape/pinishment also echoes what happens to Blomkvist at Martin’s hand. He is Martin’s woman, so to speak, to be tortured and tossed. Meaningful symmetry.

    Two last comments: I thought Stellan Skaargard as Martin was wonderfully perverse. He stole those last scenes completely. That he expected the hogtied Blomkvist ito interview him before putting on Enya to kill him was priceless.

    I believe I preferred Noomi Rapace’s Salander–she was harder, more boyish, more authentic. But Mara was good, too.

    So we agree and disagree.

    1. Corey Atad says

      Wow, great comments. I think we do disagree on some points for sure.

      On principle, I have no problem with the film having been as close as it is to the original film. I just don’t get hung up on remakes that way. The film justifies its existence by being good, and justifies it even more by being better than the original.

      Also, I definitely felt that first hour drag in the original, and the cross-cutting bothered me there, too. Interestingly, the cross-cutting bothered me more in Fincher’s version, and I think part of that is to do with the amazing sense of atmosphere he creates in each of the two stories. Whenever it cuts from one to the other it’s a bit jarring. The film finally works best when Salander and the atmosphere that follows her is implanted into the more desolate and cold world Blomkvist is a part of. Basically, I think that in this case it was a flaw that became more magnified by the strengths in other areas.

      When it comes to the rape, I agree that it’s necessary in the way that the film uses it. The line “I want you to help me catch a killer of women” would not have the immediate power that it does without Salander’s story up to that point. I just find that I often get squeamish when it comes to scenes like the ones in Dragon Tattoo. There’s an exploitative quality that I’m always worried doesn’t quite line up with the very non-exploitative messages being conveyed by the film thematically. Overall though, it’s not a big deal. Something I feel is simply worth having a discussion about.

      As for Noomi Rapace, I thought she did a great job of making Salander into a badass goth hacker chick in the original film, but I also found her a little less complex, a little more one-note. I simply found Mara to be more nuanced, and I thought she delivered a greater range of character. The Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s film wasn’t quite the same instantly badass heroin as in the original, but I thought she was the more believable and more fascinating take on the character.

      Glad you liked it overall, though. And yeah, that Enya scene made it all worth it.

      1. tmack says

        Corey–great responses. I tend to think that if I hadn’t seen the original–twice–I might have had a fresher reaction to the film. I know many people just don’t like subtitles and avoid foreign films, not hard to do since they often aren’t widely available in the U.S. unless you are so cinephile you’ll attend the arthouses. But so much fuss was made over the film and the book that fans from the first exposure to the story came at Fincher’s version differently than say, Yaz, for whom this is a first viewing. It many ways Fincher’s version is better–more polished, more atmospheric, etc. But it is essentially the same story on the heels of its predecessor.

        I can’t imagine this story without the rape scene. This is the kind of murderous hatred of women we are dealing with in this film, this level of brutality, and this is what has damaged Salander. Without that scene she would just be a weirdo. But from her pov, she lives in a brutal male world that’s physically violent. Yes, I understand about gratuitous violence like this, but in this film it is necessary. (I thought it was much more awful in the original by the way, maybe because of the actor who played the guardian, a loathesome creep as soon as you set eyes on him.)

        Fincher’s films have a tendency to grow on you. I hated the idea of a Facebook film but came to really love that movie. I’m going to watch the original again to see if I’m wrongly elevating it.

  4. tmack says

    I’ll come back to this when I see Fincher’s version. I recall, in the original version, being equally absorbed in the Blomquist & Salander backstories and feeling quite satisfied when the two came together. If I’m reading your review correctly, you seem to be saying that Fincher keeps them apart longer than necessary, isolating their stories instead of complementing one with the other.

    The film is about corruption and how that taints, has the potential of destroying, the lives & outlooks of essentially good people like Blomquist & Salander. Sex and money victimize these two people — both are horribly brutalized–and bind them as well.

    I’ll come back to this in a couple of weeks.

    1. Corey Atad says

      Awesome. I look forward to other people checking it out. Hard to discuss a movie with people when nobody else has actually seen it.

      Though I will say that you stand a good chance of liking those separate stories in this film. I felt it played out basically the same way as the original, with probably the same amount of time spent. I didn’t care for that section in the original either, though I did find it more engaging and intense in this version.

  5. tmack says

    I haven’t seen Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo because it hasn’t opened in the U.S. yet, so I can’t comment on whether I prefer Fincher’s version to the original. However, even in re-imagining & restructuring Tattoo, I can’t conceive of deleting Salander’s backstory which is what binds her to us. The original title of the book is, after all, Men Who Hate Women (something like that). That theme explains Salander’s problems and her choices. Blomquist and Salander are tied together from the start, since her film opening assignment involves investigation of Blomquist for Vanger. Her sympathy & support for him manifests in her appraisal.

    All that said, I have to wonder why Fincher kept this Swedish. This story could have been set in Maine and opened it up for an American take.

    Seven, Zodiac, Benjamin Button are my favorite Fincher films. Benjamin Button simply thrills me and I think Brad Pitt should have gotten an Oscar for his work. Fincher is one of the best storytellers in film; he even made a fine film of a movie I thought I would hate and didn’t watch until it came out in DVD–A Social Network. Who wants to see a movie about Facebook, I cracked repeatedly. That he could make such a great movie from that topic certifies him as a magician.

    1. Corey Atad says

      @tmack Your point about the Salander story is interesting. I have two responses:

      The first is that in terms of connecting Blomkvist to Salander, you could have had them connect exactly the same way without having Blomkvist’s legal troubles or seeing what Salander is up to in the meantime.

      The second issue is a completely different conversation, and one I think is worth having. The way rape is used in the story informs Salander’s character in interesting ways, but it almost seems like too much. Especially in light of the lurid material in the mystery, the rape and the retribution comes off as inherently exploitative. It’s worth asking whether the rape, as it’s shown, is necessary in the story at all.

      That being said, you’re right, a certain amount of development of her character and the abuse she suffers is necessary, and when Blomkvist approaches her and says, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,” there is a resonance there that’s quite deep.

  6. Anonymous says

    Great review but check your writers. Think you listed the original Swedish duo.

    1. Corey Atad says

      Thanks for pointing that out. I corrected it to Steven Zaillian.

  7. walkerp says

    It sounds like you have perhaps not read the original book or seen the original trilogy. Is that the case? Because what you consider ‘extraneous’ is actually setting up the much larger plot that encompasses the trilogy. Now you may be correct that it doesn’t work when you are watching the movie. But it is important to remember that it is a trilogy (well one assumes they’ll make the other two).

    Also, Benjamin Button is a bad film.

    1. Corey Atad says

      I have read the book, though only the first one. And the second Swedish film was bad enough that I didn’t bother watching the third film. I understand from a series perspective why it’s all there, but ultimately that isn’t important to me. All of that stuff was boring in the book as well. In the Harry Potter series there was always plenty of stuff that was there to set up later films, but it always felt like the films were telling reasonably cohesive stories that happened to bleed into each other. In this case, the “series” stuff feels completely disconnected from the mystery in the middle, and that mystery happens to be the thing hooking the audience. The filmmakers know this, which is why they cut out so much of the Millenium storyline to begin with.

      What it comes down to is that Dragon Tattoo, in all its forms, feels like a really fun thriller story with a lot of other stuff tacked on that isn’t very interesting and doesn’t really lead anywhere. It’s a structural problem with the book, and with the Swedish film, and now with the American film. To me, the primary focus should have been making a great film, not setting up stuff for later films that might not get made at the expense of the film you’ve got.

      And I disagree on Ben Button. I like it. It’s good. Well made. Too long. Quite stupid in a lot of place. Still, good.

  8. Corey Atad says

    We rank our Fincher films very differently, obviously. As for Panic Room, i think it falls into that category of weak material that Fincher elevates into something really tense and enjoyable. Ultimately, nothing about the film really sticks with me. It is very good though, and I certainly like it more than Benjamin Button and Alien3, and probably more than Dragon Tattoo and The Game.

    In terms of the extraneous stuff, I think the problem with it is less that it’s not interesting and more to do with the way the movie (and the book) attempts to hook the audience. The initial hook is the bit with the pressed flowers. There’s a mystery to be solved. But then you get all this other stuff that really has nothing to do with the core mystery. It plays into the later films, sure, but it feels unnecessary in the context of the central mystery. You could literally cut out all of the stuff involving Blomkvist’s legal troubles and Salander’s story with the guardian and the main mystery would not be hurt at all.

    And by cutting all that out what you’d have is a good B-thriller elevated into A territory by Fincher’s direction. It would be simply and tight like Panic Room, only even better. Instead the film feels bloated and it goes places that don’t seem to have any bearing on the plot the movie is actually structured around.

  9. Bondo says

    Panic Room isn’t even remotely lesser Fincher. It consider it his second best film. Ergo, your odd numbered films hypothesis, while applicable to Star Trek films, does not work for Fincher.

    Anyway, I happen to like a lot of the extraneous stuff from the book and wouldn’t want the book minus that stuff (the thriller is average, the context is great) so I still look forward to this version of the tale.

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