The difference between Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and David Fincher’s own is not, as some might have hoped, the difference between night and day, but between curdled milk and a warmed-over holiday second. While Fincher’s deliberate, rather perceptible “reimaginings, compressions and reductions” of the novel’s lurid, soap-operatic plot, which is rife with the familiar intrigue—and then some—of your average mass market paperback (rape, incest, serial murder, Nazis, and a shitload of clue-solving), can’t elevate trash to art, they do give one the impression of attending the most handsome funeral procession ever mounted—which is, in the end, better than feeling like you’re the corpse lying inside the coffin.
For the unwashed, Larsson’s potboiler concerns a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who’s hired to investigate the mysterious, age-old disappearance of a young girl from a private island inhabited by the Vanger clan, a bunch of super-white, insanely rich Swedes with more skeletons in their closets than there are tracks on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack for this latest film adaptation. Playing the Watson to Mikael’s Sherlock is Lisbeth Salander, a sour twentysomething computer hacker and ward of the state who orchestrates Mikael’s background check and uses her new gig as a means of avenging the deaths of rape victims like herself.
Therapy might help to permanently expunge the original film from my mind. Until then I recoil at the memory of its most reprehensible scenes: a vicious subway attack by a group of thugs that leaves Lisbeth with a broken laptop and her rape by a social worker who controls her money. Unlike Arden Oplev, Fincher doesn’t gleefully exploit Larsson’s material, staging Lisbeth’s subway attack not as a hate crime, but as a mere robbery that ends with her fiercely getting the upper hand (her laptop, though, still goes to shit). And as for the depictions of Lisbeth’s rape and its retaliation, Fincher fixates less on its violence than he does on the instruments that perpetuate it, from handcuffs to a tattoo liner. (Fincher doesn’t even bother flashbacking to Lisbeth’s horrible burning of her father, and he films the climax so anti-climactically that it practically becomes anti-matter.) Of course, Fincher’s restraint has its costs, and my fears that this Dragon Tattoo would be a feature-length version of Fincher’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” video were realized during at least one scene so carefully blocked it unfortunately brought to mind one of those randy TV ads where everyone’s privates are amusingly sequestered from view.
Fincher is a meticulous, albeit chilly, observer of procedure, and the film derives much of its momentum from Mikael’s sleuthing into the lives of the Vangers and Lisbeth’s high-tech hacking, which passes the smell test more easily here than it did in Arden Oplev’s version, and from the elegance with which their storylines are paralleled. These two fallen figures seem to be on a date with destiny, but they don’t challenge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, once they begin to work together, like true kindred spirits might. The film’s elegant moroseness, like the propulsive, sometimes discordant, volume of Rezor and Ross’s experimental score, seems intended to distract us from the fact that these two characters are banal stock types.
The book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women, and it’s enough to see Lisbeth as a feminist heroine, except her rage is so contrived (she fulfills a fantasy by carving “I am a rapist pig” onto her porcine social worker’s body) that it almost precludes such a reading. One could more successfully argue that the original title is a self-diagnosis by Larrson, a self-professed feminist, as every aspect of Lisbeth’s behavior, from her almost autistic withdrawal from the world to her libertine sexual appetites, seem sprung from the imagination of a misogynist, or at least someone with a rather rudimentary, Psych-101 understanding of victimhood.
Only a complete reimagining of Larrson’s text might have given any of its film adaptations real value. There’s ink on Lisbeth’s body, and the missing, perhaps dead Harriet used to draw plants, but the empathy that draws these living dead girls toward one another is more richly articulated in the film’s poster art. And Daniel Cragi’s Mikael is just a limp noodle, a lobotomized 007 whose adultery could have been intriguingly linked to the Vanger clan’s legacy of violence—though to be fair, a scene featuring a wasted Embeth Davidtz as Mikael’s wife is so abrupt it’s tempting to imagine the better version of the film that lies somewhere on a cutting room floor.
Rooney Mara seems to take Lisbeth more seriously than Fincher, who has a good laugh at the character’s expense in one scene by shooting the possible David Lynch fan in a shirt that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck.” This role necessitates that Mara do much strutting, and she fiercely complies, but she also hints at a vulnerability in Lisbeth that Noomi Rapace never got to convey in the first Dragon Tattoo. If Lisbeth’s goth armature feels less like a stunt this time around, it’s because Mara understands it as such, a calculated bit of theater Lisbeth is only committed to in the abstract; it’s a purposeful exaggeration meant to deliberately alienate the world. Of course, that Lisbeth, in the end, is at her most vulnerable when pining for Mikael may flesh her out as a character, but it also confirms that Dragon Tattoo, in all its incarnations, is really nothing more than the story of girls running to and from their daddies, and no matter how you dress it up, it’s inherently retrograde.