Put a check mark in the “successful American remakes” column: Like The Office and The Ring, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo revitalizes its Swedish source material while presenting a damn entertaining mystery and probing deeper into the enigmatic character of Lisbeth Salander.
Let’s start with the biggest question: Yes, Rooney Mara is incredible as antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth. The media has tracked her transformation from apple-cheeked student (in Fincher’s The Social Network last year) to skinny, bleached, pierced, apathetic goth, but the greatest elements of her performance are far subtler. In contrast to her tough look and attitude, Lisbeth’s eyes constantly dart around like a caged animal’s; Mara has subdued her usually brassy voice to an uninterested mutter. Most interestingly, she’s has focused all of her expression in her face: The barest twitch of her cheek says as much as an impassioned monologue.
And Lisbeth goes through a lot in this, the first of three movies if Sony decides to recreate the entirety of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
For what it’s worth, before this I’d only seen the Swedish version of The Girl Who Played with Fire and ...Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and hadn’t read any of the books. I knew that the latter novels are about Lisbeth’s traumatic upbringing, and that they involve graphic flashbacks to the rape and torture she’s endured from the men of authority in her life. But there’s plenty of rape and brutality to turn your stomach in this film. At first I thought that Fincher was just rushing to get to “the good stuff” early on in his series, but after reading up on the Swedish film, I saw that it follows nearly the same narrative.
I almost don’t want to see the American take on the next two books, because Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is such a well self-contained mystery, condensed into a near-perfect movie. Not perfect compared to the all-time best movies, but within its own constraints, beat-to-beat, it hits every chord: It’s dark, occasionally funny, sexy, and compelling.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) crosses paths with Lisbeth when he’s hired to investigate a decades-old murder on an isolated country estate, where the victim’s family members — from a retired Nazi to her estranged cousins — are all suspects. The mystery is never too outlandish, and though you might guess some elements of it, it’s dense enough that there are several surprises.
The placement of this tense story on an island, with family shuttling to and fro, also allows for a bevy of small but recognizable stars: Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Joely Richardson, Goran Visnjic. Usually you can guess an actor’s significance to the plot from the size of his/her cameo, but there are so many familiar faces that you don’t even have that clue. (That said, there were moments where the Americans’ attempts at Swedish accents dipped into chortle-worthy territory.)
To mention any more about the plot might start to give away the twists; suffice to say that the only incentive you need to see Dragon Tattoo is curiosity about Mara’s portrayal and the promise of a satisfying mystery. This is a movie that requires multiple rewatches to catch every character quirk and famous scene from the book recreated — not to mention the wholly original, slick but eerie title sequence.
Part of what makes Lisbeth such an engrossing antihero, like a superhero out of a comic book, is her “power” with hacking. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite take front and center here; more often we see Mikael’s own research, and Lisbeth popping in to one-up him. I hope that the second and third movies will emulate their Swedish cousins and really delve into Lisbeth’s world of strategy and infiltration; the extent of her skill is staggering.
There’s nowhere for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to go but up, and as long as Fincher is involved with the sequels, the American remakes will be real competition for the Swedish originals.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes, and one of the Playwrights-in-Residence at True False Theatre. You can find her on Twitter.