Alongside the most talented directors of his generation, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, David Fincher is one director we might be keen to discourage from tackling a remake or re-imagining of anything, if only through fear it might stifle his creativity. While in full-tilt Se7en mode for his widely-anticipated adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher also fires on the very same cylinders that almost won him a Best Director Oscar last year (for The Social Network), even if the material he’s saddled with is nowhere near as strong.
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a recently disgraced journalist who, while searching for ways to rebuild his career, is offered an investigative assignment by the elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to travel to a remote island and, using evidence pieced together over the last forty years, find out what happened to Henrik’s disappeared great-niece, Harriet. The mission serves two purposes to Blomkvist; one, to bring a much-needed influx of cash his way, and with the assignment comes a promise from Vanger that he will help restore his journalistic integrity. Along the way Blomkvist crosses paths with troubled, socially maladjusted computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), and the two ultimately team up to find out what became of the young girl.
This is the sort of film that many directors might choose to tackle after winning an Oscar for their work, or at least after crafting a high-caliber prestige pic like Fincher’s last. Though no less technically precise – and in fact, with its bleak outdoor photography and break-neck action, probably moreso – than The Social Network, there was only so far that he was ever going to be able to take a premise which, while boasting one of the decade’s most compelling female leads in any narrative medium, is rooted in a relatively generic serial killer hunt at its core. Thankfully all the breadcrumb-following is well-disguised amid a better-acted and more maddeningly imposing – both aurally and visually – atmospheric experience, shaming Niels Arden Oplev’s comparatively flat stab at the 2009 Swedish adaptation.
Though it shines well in virtually all aspects, Fincher’s casting is particularly striking; Daniel Craig turns in what is probably a career-best here, bringing a collected everyman quality while more than rising to the gauntlet thrown down by the original film’s steely equivalent, Michael Nyqvist. He is inevitably overshadowed, however, by Rooney Mara; virtually unrecognisable from her performance as the cute college girl key to Mark Zuckeberg’s neurosis in Fincher’s last film, she is also a more boyish, slender-framed Salander than Noomi Rapace. Less obviously attractive and indeed quite alien (the shaved eyebrows are a nice touch), she seems more naturally obtuse and less gimmicky than Rapace’s dolled-up equivalent (good though that is also).
Supporting turns are meanwhile stellar across the board; Christopher Plummer leads the pack and steals quite a few scenes as the sweet old man finally hoping for some long-due closure, while Stellan Skarsgård is also worth singling out in a worthy, meaty role. Also, the likes of Steven Berkoff (as Henrik’s go-to associate), Robin Wright (Blomkvist’s co-editor and casual lover) and Joely Richardson (one of Vanger’s sneaky relatives) are perfectly effective in their precious few scenes peppered throughout.
At the end of the day, pulp tends to live or die with its direction, and Fincher’s stunningly dynamic work here absolutely demands attention, mastering the chilly isolation of rural, snow-topped Sweden as well as the grimy apartments with which he is far more familiar. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth recalls the dank, drably-lit hallways of his work on Fincher’s masterful Fight Club, while also capturing the eerily sterile corridors of bureaucracy as he did on Fincher’s last film. The director’s frequent collaborator, Trent Reznor, also deserves a wealth of credit (along with Atticus Ross) for crafting a propulsive synth-based soundtrack which recalls the minimalism of their recent collaboration while also knowing when to bring out the bigger guns (as with his and Karen O’s rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, used for the film’s snazzy, James Bond-inspired opening credits sequence).
For many fans of the source material and the Swedish film, this film will all be about the details, and it will doubtless be pored over obsessively for months to come. Be clear that Fincher’s film is no remake, rather a re-adaptation of Larsson’s novel; while all the key scenes are relatively similar, the structuring has its differences, and the DNA of each individual scene is remarkably different. Steven Zallian’s pithy, savagely funny script outdoes the Swedish one in very much the same way that William Monaghan’s The Departed script was simply so much more entertaining than that of Infernal Affairs (though how much of that is owed to translation in both cases is anyone’s guess).
What’s clear is that Fincher’s approach is simultaneously more vicious and and also more sweet; the hard scenes hit harder – especially those involving sexual violence – and the softer, character-based ones are better-acted and therefore more effective. Whereas the Swedish film largely reduces Blomkvist and Salander’s dalliance to one of sexual convenience, Fincher’s is a more interesting one, one of mutual professional respect, and in its final scene – one entirely omitted from the Swede film – a tragic affirmation of Salander’s lonely existence. That Fincher is keener to flesh the characters out as Larsson intended makes for a far more satisfying arc.
Nevertheless, one still has to contend with what is under all the fancy cinematography and brooding music a character study that is far more interesting than the film it is in. The murder mystery isn’t all that enticing, particularly when it becomes clear that the killer appears to be mimicking verses out of the Old Testament. It’s Crime Fiction 101, but thankfully, Fincher doesn’t linger on it longer than he needs to. Still, he is to an extent held hostage by an understandable desire to keep fans happy, such that the villain ends up painstakingly revealing his plan and motives to Blomkvist, even laughably spouting the classically villainous phrase, “We’re not so different, you and I”.
On the whole however, it is good fun – if, at 158-minutes, a tad excessive – and seeing Fincher back in the thriller genre is nary a bad thing, even if one can’t help but feel his skills could be put to better use elsewhere. David Fincher’s first-rate direction effortlessly wipes the floor with the soporific Swedish counterpart. In the end, though, even Fincher can’t froth up some of the novel’s more procedural killer-of-the-week fancies.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo will be in cinemas from December 20th in the U.S. and December 26th in the UK.