On one level, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is simply an Agatha Christie story for Nine Inch Nails fans. You may think I’m joking, but think about it: an isolated island full of disgruntled relatives in a wealthy family, an unsolved murder with loads of potential suspects, and a sleuth who uncovers the secrets through sharp analysis of the facts at hand. The spin of course is that the sleuth is not the Gallic, mannered, mustachioed Hercule Poirot, but Nordic, bisexual Goth-girl Lisbeth Salander, a pallid hacker with piercings, tattoos and a wardrobe that consists entirely of black.
Based on the first of the “Millennium Trilogy” novels by Swedish journalist/author Stieg Larsson, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was already a cult hit in its 2009 Swedish film adaptation, and — rather predictably — nearly everyone who’s seen the original says David Fincher’s Hollywood remake isn’t as good. In their opinion, the material has been toned down, and no one can top the feral, intense performance actress Noomi Rapace gave as the original Lisbeth.
I beg to differ: Fincher’s “Dragon Tattoo” is plenty dark, and his casting savvy. Rooney Mara brings a wary, coiled tension to her Lisbeth, and while a bit cooler and less butch than the ferocious Rapace version, just watch her go all-out after a bag-snatcher twice her size. She embodies old-school punk, where the brittle, sod-off vibes she emits are as much about self-defense as self-negation. Playing Watson to her Holmes is Daniel Craig as investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist; this creates a certain frisson as that emblem of male virility, James Bond, finds himself outclassed by a girl half his age.
Beyond that, Fincher’s filmmaking skills are just light-years ahead of the competition. From the opening credits — a three-minute fetish/industrial fever-dream of ebony ooze, penetrating cables and liquid fire, set to the slashing beats of Trent Reznor’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — the film hits you on all cylinders, with ambient lighting and digital filters, pitch-perfect set design and the buzzing, pulsating electronic score all combining to subtly enhance the impact of every scene.
As for the charge that he’s toned things down, well, Fincher must have known that you can’t put Gaspar Noe-esque content in a mainstream film, even an R-rated one. Even as things stand, “Dragon Tattoo” has a couple of very disturbing scenes; the fact that Fincher cuts away at the moment of a brutal rape, rather than show it in lengthy detail (as did the original), is to his credit. Fincher shows us the horror of the impending act and its consequences without making us complicit by wallowing in the brutality.
The story is a potboiler involving a wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who hires Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his beloved niece Harriet some decades before. The police never solved the crime, but Vanger believes that Blomkvist might find something; with the help of Salander’s hacking skills, he does, uncovering a trail of alcoholism, incest, Nazism and finally a serial killer.
While Blomkvist is motivated to clear his name — Vanger dangles info on a dirty financier whose libel suit ruined his career — for Salander it’s sheer revenge. She knows something of being preyed on by men, and she seeks payback for Harriet and all the other girls this killer has claimed. (Larsson’s book was originally called “Men Who Hate Women,” supposedly inspired by his guilt over failing to intervene when he witnessed a gang-rape at age 15.)
Fincher’s last film, “The Social Network,” was about a guy who was inept enough in real-life relationships to instead channel his energy into creating endless virtual ones, i.e., Facebook. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is in many ways the first post-Facebook detective story, where the sleuthing takes place almost entirely within the realm of the digital, and where nothing is really private: It’s computer-enhanced photos, monitored emails and hacked bank accounts that drive the story. Still, it’s the physical connection — the bond between lovers who share a bed, or of a knife-wielding killer and his victim — that retains primacy. (And Lisbeth’s hacking skills are so effortlessly capable of anything, she may as well just cry “Aresto momentum!” and wave her wand; technology is the new magic.)
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is Fincher’s third film about serial killers — after “Se7en” and “Zodiac” — and while the director may be getting typecast, each film differs sharply in tone. “Se7en” was all psychological mind-games set with a smattering of Grand Guignol horror around the edges, while “Zodiac” had a more clinical, less lurid approach and pulled in tight on the investigative process, with a poignant sense of how time is the enemy of justice.
“Dragon Tattoo” draws a bit from both: The biblically-influenced killer echoes Kevin Spacey’s in “Se7en,” while the struggle to dredge up evidence and memories of a decades-old crime is what Salander and Blomkvist face. (Ironically, while it was a reporter who gave up Brad Pitt’s detective character’s home address to the killer in “Se7en,” it’s the journalists who save the day here — that just earned Fincher an extra star.)
Ultimately, “Dragon Tattoo” falls neatly between those two previous films — not as all-out suspenseful as “Se7en,” nor as dry as “Zodiac.” Fincher himself says that he found the characters more interesting than the mystery aspect, and I would tend to agree. Here’s hoping he signs on to direct the sequels.