The late Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of novels -- of which Dragon Tattoo is the first – still sells off the charts. We’ve already seen big-screen Swedish versions of all three books, and there hardly seems to be a person attuned to popular culture who hasn’t heard of Lisbeth Salander, the tech wizard and ace hacker who harbors deep secrets and who remains Larsson’s most memorable character.
The new and beautifully crafted version – from director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac and Se7ven) -- has been made with consummate care, and – most importantly -- Fincher has found an actress in Rooney Mara who matches the brilliantly edgy work done by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original -- and that's saying a lot.
Salander’s appearance – spiky hair, multiple piercings and a pallor that might make a vampire jealous -- feels both familiar and strange. She’s like a human porcupine with quills fully extended. Touch, and you'll probably get hurt.
(An FYI: Mara appeared briefly in the opening of Fincher’s The Social Network, playing the young woman Mark Zuckerberg insulted in the movie’s first scene.)
Like Rapace, Mara also shows occasional flashes of beauty, traces of softness beneath the hardcore exterior. She’s one hell of a character, and you definitely wouldn’t want to cross her.
So what else do we get?
We get the kind of richer, more varied look that stems from having a large Hollywood budget. We also get scenes that are shocking and ghastly.
We also get the same kind of labyrinthine (a nice way of saying overly complex) plot that marked the first movie, a story full of former Nazis, wealthy aristocrats, and skeptical journalists -- not to mention serial killing, rape and revenge. And even more than his Swedish predecessor, Fincher falls prey to the furrowed-brow seriousness the material seems to evoke, pulp striving for art.
This march toward artistic legitimacy is abetted by a fine cast.
Daniel Craig brings the expected gravity and a touch of vulnerability to the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Robin Wright portrays Blomkvist’s journalistic partner and sometime lover; Stellan Skarsgard appears as a member of the wealthy and highly dysfunctional Vanger family, and Christopher Plummer plays Henrik Vanger, the ranking member of the Vanger clan.
Plummer’s character summons Blomkvist to the Vanger island retreat, and hires him to investigate the long ago murder of a favorite niece, Thus, the story begins.
Two strands lace throughout the opening chapters of the story: Salander’s and Blomkvist’s, and these eventually are joined in Steven Zaillian’s script, which one imagines to have reached phone-book-like proportions to accommodate the story's two-hour and 38-minute length, not all if it fleet.
Now if you’ve read the book and seen the Swedish movie, you may inevitably find yourself playing a game of compare and contrast: It’s not easy to watch Fincher’s movie without trying to remember how the same situations were handled in both the book and the earlier film. This either becomes a distraction or a source of enjoyment, depending on your temperament.
The bottom line: I thought the Swedish movie was fine (with an exceptional turn from Rapace), but I liked Fincher’s English-language version a little better, maybe because I found myself caught up in the mood and atmosphere created by Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. I wouldn't call The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Fincher's best work, but he definitely knows how to serve up a chilled and even classy dish of deviance and menace.