Nothing in David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo quite lives up to the menacing, ambiguous, death-metal rapturous credit sequence that opens the director's adaptation of the best-selling Stieg Larsson novel of the same name. Like a tattoo come to life and set to Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song," covered by Trent Reznor and Karen O, the sequence merges themes of sex and death, creation and destruction, in a seeping, morphing, phantasmagoric meltdown. If only the rest of the film yielded such remarkable fruit.
Following a skilled, creepy Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by director Niels Arden Oplev, Fincher's version lives in a world where Hollywood execs operate from the unpleasant notion that an American director with more money will naturally make a superior version. Too many remakes to count have proven that theory wrong. Fincher's is a skilled, slick, and engrossing version of Larsson's book, though not the masterwork one would long for from a director who has made a number of them in his time (Zodiac, Fight Club, The Social Network). His Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is certainly watchable and will no doubt reap major box office cash, though it doesn't necessarily add a new wrinkle or layer of subtext to this beloved tale.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opens as crusading reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses a libel court battle against the wealthy, corrupt industrialist Wennerstrom, whom he had taken to task in the pages of the crusading left-wing magazine Millennium. Wennerstrom represents Goliath to Mikael's David in Larsson's au courant indictment of bloated, malevolent corporations that wield their power with impunity. The little guys are the reporters like Mikael and the damaged punk rock computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (a very, very good Rooney Mara) who mount herculean battles with impossible odds against institutionalized power. Mikael's targets are corporate villains, and Lisbeth's is the corrupt, perverse psychiatrist she must report to as a ward of the state.
The worlds of Mikael and Lisbeth intersect when the journalist is enticed to escape his public ruin, and possibly find vengeance too, by another wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Henrik lures Mikael away from Stockholm to remote Hedestad with the ostensible task of writing his biography. In fact, Henrik is hoping Mikael can put his journalistic sleuthing skills to use by tracking down the killer of his 16-year-old niece, Harriet, who disappeared in 1966 without a trace. The Vangers all seem to despise each other but nevertheless live within spitting distance from one another on their remote island. They include one acknowledged elderly Nazi and Harriet's likable brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgard) who lives in the sole modern home amidst all of the aristocratic fortresses.
Aiding Mikael in his work is Lisbeth, whose hacking and sleuthing skills suggest a post-modern Nancy Drew. The pair form one of the strangest movie couples of all time, first sleuthing and then sleeping together.
Comparable in its sepulchral tone and storm cloud color palette, Fincher's Sweden is not unlike the coated-in-rain, film-noir funk of Los Angeles in his Seven. The color scheme is oppressively one-note, moving between shades of slate and ice blue to drive home the comparable ice-cold behavior of the characters. And as a director indebted to atmospheric music as much as Scorsese or Lynch, Fincher often uses a clever choice of tunes to cue us to feel sympathy or revulsion with these characters. Lisbeth even comes with her own soundtrack of electric, garbled industrial noise that Fincher cues during moments when she experiences extreme psychological distress. But worse even than torture, rape, and murder in the film, Dragon Tattoo's ultimate perversity occurs when Enya is played at full volume later in the film.
Whether you prefer Fincher or Oplev's version, both films — embodied by fine actresses — do justice to one of the most radical female characters in film history. A Pippi Longstockings for the Nine Inch Nails crowd, Lisbeth is an utterly fascinating character who in many cases plays the role of the knight astride her motorcycle, rescuing Mikael from the clutches of the story's many bad guys. Not since Clarice Starling has a female character at the center of a serial killer yarn displayed such a rare combination of vulnerability and steely strength, with a little I Spit On Your Grave exploitation-film streak of extreme vengeance to boot.