(by Dustin Putman
Where there's a best-selling novel to exploit (in this case, the first in a trilogy by late author Stieg Larsson) and a Swedish film with subtitles for lazy and illiterate Americans to ignore, one can bet an English-language U.S. remake won't be far behind. Arriving just one calendar year after the deliciously twisty, utterly captivating foreign counterpart directed by Niels Arden Oplev is David Fincher's (2010's "The Social Network") "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," and it's not at all what most audiences will probably be expecting. Coming in at roughly the same two-and-a-half-hour running time but feeling exceptionally more bloated, meanderingly focused, and outright random, this studio version is, oddly enough, far less commercial and only about a quarter as lushly mysterious as the superior overseas original. The almost always reliable Fincher makes a long line of bad creative decisions that soak the creep-factor and intrigue clear out of the plot. This is most definitely an example of him having an off day. Article continues below
When Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hit with a bogus libel suit that threatens his reputation and magazine, it is decided that some time away from the front lines might be in order until things blow over. As luck would have it, he is invited to the island of Hedestad in Northern Sweden and propositioned by the elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the unsolved 1966 disappearance of his then-16-year-old niece Harriet. She disappeared on the same day as the community's autumn parade, during the same week as the extended Vanger family's annual reunion. Anyone could potentially be Harriet's murderer, and Henrik is hoping to finally learn the truth of that fateful September day. Mikael agrees to the task, moving into a cottage on the property and ultimately hiring a research assistant, tattooed, pierced, antisocial 23-year-old computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). She already knows everything about Mikael before she meets him; her last assignment was to perform an extensive background check by the company suing him, so formal introductions aren't really necessary.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" begins with a hellish opening credits sequence of metallic beings and objects melding together like inkblot tests, a cross between James Bond and Hieronymus Bosch scored to Trent Reznor's and Karen O's awesome cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." It starts the film off with a bang, but does it really have much purpose beyond looking cool? Furthermore, it doesn't at all fit with the rest of the film's tone, an occasionally graphic but generally low-key investigative procedural. If the 2010 Swedish version was tightly written and paced, exuding an atmospheric confidence and increased sense of danger as the story unraveled while knowing full well how and when to reveal its twists and turns for maximum impact, director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (2011's "Moneyball") turn the same premise slack and obvious. They seem vaguely disinterested, going through the motions with barely a modicum of flair while spelling things out to an exhausting degree. Whereas the earlier film teased and then showed as Mikael dug further into Harriet's disappearance—this aided in suggesting that danger was still an imminent concern coming to haunt its characters—here it all boils down to a lot of lackadaisical telling as the protagonists sit around pouring over old files and evidence. Even said photos pale in comparison.
Daniel Craig (2011's "Dream House") and Rooney Mara (2011's "Tanner Hall") are wholly convincing as unlikely confidantes Mikael and Lisbeth, but the same cannot be said about the romance that ultimately forms between them. Inorganic and shoehorned in, Craig and Mara do not share sexual chemistry or even a hint of attraction for one another before they're stripping nude and bumping uglies. That this subplot arises mere moments after Lisbeth is seen making out with a girl in a club before taking her home is all the more perplexing; what was the purpose of this scene if nothing was to come of it? It only further confuses rather than better informs the character. As it is, Lisbeth is notably more indistinct in this version, the truth behind why she is a longtime ward of the state whittled down to a single throwaway line of dialogue. In retrospect, then, the sexual abuse that she suffers at the hands of her new guardian, the despicable Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), feels superficial bordering on exploitative when it ran as parallel foreshadowing in the previous picture. That Lisbeth is more aggressive and less a victim here—as in a scene where her bag is snatched in the subway and she beats the thief up rather than gets beaten up herself—lessens her eventual arc as a young woman tired of being wronged by the darkness in the world and actively deciding to fight back. By not getting a good enough idea of where she's come from, it's more difficult to assess how far she goes.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" features much of the same team behind 2010's Oscar-winning "The Social Network" doing their stuff as well as can be expected. The portentous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is offbeat and original, and the on-location cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth brings a blustery, picturesque, little-seen vision of Sweden to the screen. Holding no scrutiny at all is the contrivance of having all the actors play Swedes who constantly speak in English and read English-language newspapers, even as all the signs and shop fronts surrounding them are plainly written in the local language. It's a small point, but undeniably obnoxious. So is director David Fincher's insistence on falling back on predictable thriller clichés, taking time out for bad guys to discuss their dastardly plans and then dragging on past the expiration date for another twenty minutes. The decision to show in great detail the steps Lisbeth takes in a key climactic action is equally misguided, draining the finale of the surprising turns of the screw that the Swedish version so cleverly—and sneakily—exposed. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has been an enthralling, meticulously woven allegorical potboiler in all its former incarnations. This time, it's been rendered overheated, dumbed-down junk food with a lofty budget in the place of thematic depth.