Dear The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,
It must be hard for a film such as yourself to get along in this world. Sure, you have talent to spare – Oscar-nominated director David Fincher, Oscar-winning writer Steve Zaillian, BAFTA-nominated actor Daniel Craig – and a story well worth telling. Sure you have a load of hype and a fan base that voraciously devoured your story in book form. However, all of those aspects in your favor are blunted slightly by the fact that you’ve technically already been made. I’m sure that must wreak havoc with your existential sense of necessity.
Yes, the American penchant for remaking foreign properties is a well-documented phenomenon, and no one should be surprised that the original Swedish version of your tale would find itself the subject of a makeover. What is surprising, though, is how closely you hew to the original. While you do make some changes to structure or character beats, you remain a close enough facsimile of the original that you barely make a case for your own existence. In some ways, the changes you affect actually make for a reduction of the aspects that made your predecessor so appealing to me.
On the surface, though, you remain a close, suitably moody retelling of the tale of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander’s (Rooney Mara) quest to uncover the truth regarding a 40-year-old murder involving an eccentric family of wealthy industrialists living on an island in the north of Sweden. Sometime during the mid sixties, Harriet Vanger disappeared during a family gathering, and her great uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) has always blamed himself. Now, in the winter of his life, Henrik invites Blomkvist to find out the truth and give him some measure of peace. Blomkvist is at a crossroads in his career as a journalist, having been found guilty of libel against a powerful businessman, and he takes the job reluctantly. Lisbeth Salander, meanwhile, is having trouble removing herself from the oppressive heel of her state-appointed case worker, and, given her own personal history, is eager to help Blomkvist when he offers her the chance to capture “a killer of women.” The two form an unlikely bond that catapults their investigation into dark, tortured recesses of humanity better left unspoken.
On the surface this tale would be perfect for director David Fincher, who explored similar territory with his masterpieces Seven and Zodiac. A kind of unholy bonding of the two films seemed to be in the cards when your production was announced. However, something strange occurred with you, and you fell somehow short of that lineage. While Fincher creates a moody, dark portrait of your tale through excellent photography and camera work, he never manages to make you anything more than a seemingly note-for-note recreation of your foreign sister. Each of you makes excellent use of your snowy, cloudy environments and wrings a certain amount of existential dread from the presence of so many twisted, detestable men, and each of you can rightly be called a perfectly fine entry into the crime genre. However, Fincher, in making you, had a chance to impart something of his unique style or presence, and yet fails to do so.
In fact, Fincher is so slavish to the template set by your predecessor that one wonders what drew him to you in the first place. He doesn’t even bother changing your setting from Sweden to America, a move which might have allowed him to make some sort of cultural statement regarding American values; regarding our past, our future, and our view of gender. Yet every actor speaks perfect English, many of them with English accents, and thus there is a fundamental discord in your story telling because your environment becomes unmoored from time and space. Newspapers appear in both English and Swedish, Blomkvist – who never speaks Swedish – prints a magazine in Swedish, and names remain un-Anglicized. For the first twenty minutes I waited for you to address the obvious English heritage of your hero, but the moment never came. There was something very off, very lazy about this, and its weighs on me the more I consider it.
Your actors all do a suitable job of bringing their characters to life, though outside of Salander this means little beyond showing up and speaking their lines. Craig is always excellent as a stoic, morally upright hero, and thus his performance here involves little more than toning down his otherwise imposing physicality. Mara, meanwhile, plays Salander with a kind of wound up, wide-eyed tension that feels genuine and visceral. She adopts the physical persona of Salander so well that one might question whether she simply looks the part really well. The two form a frienship/relationship that is shallow and yet strongly forged, yet neither requires a great deal of acting to really sell the union.
The one way in which you definitely do differ from your previous incarnation is in your ending and the manner in which you treat your characters in those waning moments. Blomkvist and Salander have a friction free relationship, and no moral equivocation is ever brought up regarding the identity and circumstance of the eventual villain. In the original movie there is a moment of questioning and debate regarding the agency of a certain kind of murderer. You destroy that deeper question, and replace it instead with a character arc that is unearned and which undermines much of the strength of one of your characters. Perhaps one day I will write a piece delineating the differences in that character from film to film, but for now suffice to say I was less thrilled with your take than with your foreign counterpart’s.
The one area in which you do excel is your score. Trent Reznor has created a discordant meshing of all kinds of strange tones that distills unease into a sonic tonic. Not only that, but it is weaved so effortlessly into your narrative that it achieves a kind of sublime state of harmony with every other aspect of you. Consider one moment involving Salander, where the noise caused by a floor buffer provides a grating, unhappy undertone to a scene of intense distaste, and how that buffing noise melds perfectly with the music as it grows with the intensity of the scene. Once the scene has resolved itself the music dies, but the sound of the buffer remains, a vestige of the experience and the mood created. It is an insight into the way in which the world seems to be malignantly in opposition of Salander.
It is moments like that one which make me most disenchanted. Such a deceptively simple cinematic moment of power and import, the perfect melding of form with narrative and character. Had more of your story been addressed in a similar way, instead of the straightforward retread that you chose to be, we might be having a very different conversation now. Instead, though, I’m left saying this; you do a good job of playing an old song well, but fail completely to impart anything new or noteworthy into the tune.
I am sure people unfamiliar with the Swedish original will find you entertaining and enjoyable, but in the end, I can’t help but question how you would defend your own existence if given the chance.
Enjoyable, unremarkably yours,
Brian J. Roan