A great director can sometimes turn trash into art, but David Fincher can only take The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so far. We might be inclined to wonder what attracted this filmmaker to Stieg Larsson's novel, but Fincher has always displayed a taste for pulpy, thrill-based stories, so the darkness of this tale should in theory be a good fit for him. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has already been filmed once, by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, but his TV background was evident through his unspectacular handling of the picture, whereas the new version has at least been entrusted to a real filmmaker. Fincher attempts to stamp his own personality on the film immediately, with a rather dubious opening credits sequence involving bodies writhing in ink (or oil?) to the sound of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's version of Immigrant Song, a sequence that suggests a kinkier take on James Bond.
I guess it seems oddly appropriate, as the male lead is played by the current OO7. Daniel Craig is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, whose attempt to take down a corrupt businessman has landed him in court and financial trouble, with his reputation in pieces. Despite this, he is offered a new job when retired millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) invites him to his remote estate and asks him to solve the forty year-old mystery of his daughter's disappearance. As he gets down to business a parallel storyline plays out, introducing us to the real star of the movie, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Whereas Daniel Craig strolls around being Daniel Craig and opting out of the Swedish accent every other actor adopts, Mara seems completely committed her character. Her waif-like frame makes Lisbeth a more vulnerable figure than Noomi Rapace's embodiment of the role (though she lacks Rapace's ferocity), and she bears the scars of a lifetime of abuse more readily, but she also brings a welcome sly wit to the role and an effective directness. I liked her delivery of the line, "Lie still. I’ve never done this before – and there will be blood," as she took a tattoo-based revenge on her rapist, as well as her condescending sneer and "please" when Mikael asked how she accessed his encrypted files.
Lisbeth is a stunningly proficient computer hacker, you see – but then, I presume you know that already, which is why I haven't gone into much detail over the plot here. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie then you're going to be a very small proportion of this film's potential audience, which gives Fincher some peculiar challenges to overcome. There is no tension here – we know the beats of the story very well and when the characters are in peril we know both that they will escape and even how they will escape. For much of the film the key differences between the 2009 film and this one are in style and mood. Fincher's film is as slickly watchable as we might expect – we've seen before how he can make computer hacking and the dogged pursuit of clues into mesmerising cinema – with Jeff Cronenweth's coldly atmospheric cinematography and the unsettling rhythms of Reznor and Ross's score ensuring this is a far more professional production than the original film. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remains a sordid piece of work, no matter how gleaming the surface of Fincher's picture is, and it remains a pretty shoddy piece of storytelling too, something that is only thrown into sharp relief by the extra style this American version possesses.
The most successful film adaptations of novels often make significant changes to the structure of the narrative, and that's something The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was crying out for. Steven Zaillian's screenplay does make a few small changes to the plot – one alteration towards the end is a smart move – but the essential structure of Larsson's story remains in all its ungainliness. Significant issues remains: that Lisbeth and Mikael don't meet until over an hour of the film has elapsed; that so many revelations are congested into a few stodgy and unconvincing sequences; and that the film ends not with the uncovering of the murderer, but with a rather dull and inconsequential sequence in which Lisbeth plays dress-up and steals some money.
I wish Fincher and Zaillian had completely re-thought The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and dared to give us a fresh take on a story that has already been told through one book and movie. Instead we have that same old story, with all of its inherent problems, lifted mostly intact and given an expensive makeover. It's not really enough, and watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a strangely empty experience, as we watch in the knowledge that the film exists beneath the level of the talents that have been working on it. It's always a pleasure to see a filmmaker like David Fincher at work, but sometimes he's only as good as his material allows him to be.