As far as I was concerned, my ticket to David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was paid for as soon as the opening credits rolled. After an awkward cold open in which two old men share one line of dialog, Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song breaks the quiet mood. While Karen screams about those Scandinavians “from the land of ice and snow,” silvery images of breaking faces, bleeding technology, unfurling flowers, fire, and who knows what else rip across the screen.
Based on the first book in the Swedish Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the former head of the grand Vanger enterprises, lures Blomkvist to a small town on an island in order to solve the mystery of his long lost niece. Because she disappeared during a family reunion, at a time when an accident blocked off access to the island, Vanger is convinced a relative murdered her. Meanwhile, the audience also follows Salander, a punkish young woman who is under the care of the state for violent behavior. We witness her abuse, her ruthless, methodical reaction to said abuse, and her genius with a computer.
The film manages to overcome one of my biggest pet peeves: characters in a foreign country speak English with a foreign accent. (Why bother? They’re supposed to be speaking another language anyway. The whole world doesn’t revolve around English.) The mostly British and American cast tend to speak with a slight Swedish lilt. Another problem with the movie is a certain violent scene which lingers on the perpetrator’s sadism, seemingly in order to justify retaliation.
Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ambient soundtrack is sometimes self-conscious, as are the sharp editing and Jeff Cronenweth’s striking cinematography. However, this approach works: it infuses the film with suspense, conveys the book’s intensity, and turns moments which could have been difficult to translate from the page into resonant scenes.
Steven Zaillian’s script has been very well edited, weaving subtle themes about greed, victimization, and xenophobia. In general, the few changes from the book clarify the plot. The screenplay is a surprisingly successful balance of character development, dramatic tension, and satisfying solutions.
Most of the characterizations are intriguing and true to their source. Craig’s believable and sympathetic Blomkvist might be an improvement on the original. Mara depicts the wildly popular Salander’s mixture of detachment, calculation, viciousness, and vulnerability. Plummer’s friendly but cunning Vanger is especially close to Larsson’s description. Other Vanger relatives are played by Stellen Skarsgaard (excellent as Henrik’s amiable nephew), an appropriately cold Geraldine James, and a sensitive Joely Richardson.
Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish adaptation of the same novel had the disadvantage of a shorter length (it was cut down from a miniseries) and a smaller budget (I assume). The two stars Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were fantastic, but the series lacked imagination. Overall Fincher’s version better captures the feel of the book, and in some cases even improves upon it. I would love to see the sequels to this beautifully shot, gripping adaptation.