Slaying The Dragon – David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Posted on January 6, 2012


By now there must be no one on the planet who hasn’t heard of Stieg Larsson’s brilliant Millennium Trilogy and its intriguing protagonist Lisbeth Salander. There has nary been a beach holiday or a tube journey that hasn’t unveiled yet another reader of the books, despite the phenomenon having reached its crest some time ago.

Presumably, there are monks in monasteries high in the Tibetan mountains, dangerous criminals in solitary confinement, and tribesmen in uncharted areas of Peru, all with a copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

This cultural proliferation hasn’t stopped at literature, either. The trilogy has already been made into three films in Sweden with Noomi Rapace putting in a performance as Salander that is hard to beat. These films, despite the usual reluctance of many cinemagoers to watch subtitled films, have proven to be hugely successful and have, in most part, remained very faithful to the source.

With all that in mind, with the narrative twists and turns and revelations already so well known to the public, with the fever pitch in freefall, with a defining performance already delivered by Rapace, what more could Fincher’s film possibly bring to the table?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Fincher is arguably one of the best directors in the world today and, after Seven, it is difficult to imagine anyone else at the helm of the Millennium Trilogy. Who else could create the sense of tension and dread, cast such a dark tone over his material and handle the intricacies of telling such a convoluted narrative? And Fincher does not disappoint here. Yes, this might be familiar territory to those of us (everyone) who have read the books or seen the films, but this is no mere remake of the Swedish film, despite some of the shots being extremely similar. No, what Fincher delivers here, what arguably was missing from the previous films, is the tonal discomfort that pervades Larsson’s novels. Perhaps the pacing feels a little slow into the third act, but the choice to keep the pace even has more of a slow burning effect than the need to rack up the tension over dramatically. Ultimately, Fincher has produced what he always produces: a work of dark, unsettling beauty.

The cinematography by long-time Fincher collaborator Jeff Cronenweth is beautiful, too, capturing the stunning Swedish settings perfectly, whilst the desaturated colour from the scenes set in the 60s give the film an appropriately vintage look and feel. Certainly the film is dark, and not just in tone – the colours in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are often muted and there is a lot of darkness and shadow, however, this only serves to heighten the feeling of disquiet.

In terms of narrative, the film does little to swerve away from the book, although there is a notable difference towards the end of the film, which is something of a departure from the novel. This, however, does not effect the story too greatly and only the truly die hard fans of the books will feel any twinge of disappointment – in fact, the change feels fairly refreshing in a story that is so well known.

Indeed, legendary scriptwriter Steven Zaillian does an incredible job of distilling the intricacies of the novel down into only two hundred and fifty pages or so. It is remarkable that none of the complexities of the novel feel lost. However, there will always be redactions and omissions in an adaptation of this sort, but it is a testament to Zaillian that nothing seems to be glaringly omitted, especially when one considers the novel’s content and the desire for studios to turn in a lower certificated film.

The inclusion of that scene is certainly a brave decision by Fincher, but braver still is the willingness to play it by Rooney Mara.

Mara, last seen in Fincher’s The Social Network, has done what few actresses could do or could hope to do: She has turned in a career defining performance that not only is brave and revealing, that literally strips her bare, but also shows that she is capable of confounding all expectation. For the auditions, Mara was up against the likes of recent Academy Award winning best actress Natalie Portman, as well as Carey Mulligan, a media favourite off the back of her role in An Education, and Scarlett Johansson.

To win the role over these higher-profile actresses is no small thing in Hollywood, where the power of the star-driven opening weekend is all. On top of that, there is the existing base of fans that believe that Noomi Rapace delivered the definitive interpretation of Salander. Indeed, there have been those who consider the idea of an American actress trying to top Rapace’s performance an impossibility. If all that weren’t enough, Mara also had to overcome our own imaginations. Who didn’t have their own, distinctive impression of Salander when they read the book?

Mara took on what many believed was an almost impossible role to play, one that would require not only nudity and sex scenes, but that would also require her to play the victim of a particularly brutal rape scene. But whilst Salander is a victim, she is so much more besides. She is also an empowered woman with a brilliant mind, capable of violence, and possessed of an apparently anti-social attitude. So, she is frail, yet strong, empowered yet not outspoken. In short, she is a complex and contradictory character to play.

Undaunted by all of this, Mara has stepped into the role and totally owned it. She inhabits the role so completely that it is hard to find any fault with her performance. Her vulnerability is there, but so is her anger, simmering constantly. She projects her emotional unavailability but also the tiny chinks in her armor that might allow for more. It is a brilliantly measured performance and one that should certainly see an Academy nomination and should, by rights, win her a statue.

The rest of the actors are similarly well cast, seemingly plucked directly from our imaginations. Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger are a case in point, occupying roles they were somehow made to play and Robin Wright could not be closer to Erika Berger if she tried. However, most notable of all others is Daniel Craig, who excels as Mikael Blomkvist. Whilst every other actor has chosen to adopt the Swedish lilt, Craig goes in all Sean Connery in Red October, his accent not altering a jot, defying all that goes on around him. In spite of this, Craig manages to utterly convince as Blomkvist.

One of the elements of the character in the novels was his charisma, and that is something that Craig has in spades. Craig can deliver the most mundane line and make it cool or amusing. Only Craig could walk around with his glasses dangling off his ears for most of the film and still make it look good. We all know he can do confident thanks to his licence to kill, however, when it comes to showing vulnerability and fear, Craig really lets you feel it.

There is so much more to say about this film. For example, the simply brilliant title sequence (it’s like the darkest imaginings of Daniel Kleinman on the scariest Bond movie ever) and the use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, given new fire by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with Karen O’s searing vocal performance, is simply inspirational and perfectly sets the tone for what is to follow. If there is any justice, the score should give Reznor and Ross another Oscar for Best Original Score.

The production design, for those that care about such trifles, is perfection. The detailing is superb, from the font used on the Millennium office’s header, the mish-mash of dirt bike and café racer that Salander rides, and to the chilling modernist perfection of Martin’s hillside residence. Everything is as it should be, a page torn from our own imagination.

So, in summary, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is everything you could hope for in an adaptation of the novel. Those that feared an American remake would be an abuse of the novels and the films should have expected more from Salander – she wouldn’t let them get away with that now, would she?