It begins with a sleek intro set to Karen O.’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Black oil slicks down a woman’s body. She begins kissing a man, oil envelopes the two of them and they burst into flames. A bird flaps its flaming wings. Insects crawl out of her mouth. As the final chords rage, things burn and smolder. If you’ve read the books, it’s metaphorical, but more importantly, it’s stylish, edgy, inventive–everything you want to see in an adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by David Fincher.
So far, so good, especially since from the start, Fincher’s adaptation has been defined by a formidable challenge. It exists in the shadow of two older and beloved brothers, the kind who won over all the teachers before you even got to high school. One is Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of novels and the other the highly praised Swedish film adaptation.
And Fincher, of course, has the burden of working with content whose crucial shock factor has already worn off for audience members like me. But oddly, it’s not the content that’s the problem; Fincher, director of “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” gives rightful justice to the novel’s most disturbing scenes. Rather, it’s his style that is bothersome. Fincher does not seize “Dragon Tattoo” and make it his own.
Take “Fight Club,” which centers on another famous, unstable and self-exiled individual, Tyler Durden. That film seems much truer to Fincher’s vision, a piece of passion, with an unhinged energy through which we see Tyler’s world. That’s missing in “Dragon Tattoo,” which for all its risky content is rather stylistically conservative. We see Lisbeth’s life. She’s at a club populated by punks. She’s hacking away, downing Coca-Colas and Ramen noodles. Fincher studies her with aloof fascination and admiration. It’s all what we expect to see. She’s playing into our expectations, when a character as subversive as she is should be defying them. Tyler Durden, and the subculture he presides over, occupies “Fight Club” and challenges our assumptions unapologetically. But strangely, Fincher seems cautious when it comes to surrendering his lens to Lisbeth’s world view; neither her character nor the world she inhabits are given the realism they deserve. Where’s the raw energy of the intro? Or its passion, written in the pulsating riffs of “Immigrant Song”? It’s somewhere within Lisbeth, insinuated but contained.
Where Fincher excels is at making you feeling things, which in the context of these novels, in which sensations like pain are so visceral, is not a trivial feat. The pain of being tattooed across the chest, the pain of being raped, is uncomfortably vivid. He also captures the minimalist coldness of the color-drained Swedish landscap–not just the pure, shiver-inducing cold, but the haunting isolation that befits a novel whose characters are defined by their inability to relate to others. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score, quietly eerie and unnerving, has the same effect.
As for Daniel Craig, he has the worn face for the part of the strained publisher-reporter Mikael Blomkvist. He’s a skillful actor, but he could’ve drawn on more vulnerability and insecurity. The film would have been more compelling, and affecting, had he unhinged himself (as he did in the last few scenes), giving greater weight to Blomkvist’s underlying loneliness and melancholy. Perhaps it would’ve lent greater poignancy to his relationship with Salander, another troubled and isolated soul.
Speaking of Salander; Swedish actress Noomi Rapace emerged from her fearless performance as the film’s heroine universally praised and a burgeoning star, leaving Rooney Mara–Fincher’s personal pick for the role–with large shoes to fill. At first, Mara’s face seems too innocent, her light eyes vacuous in comparison to Rapace’s strong features and deep brown eyes. But despite myself and my bias, I warmed up to her. Her strength, though not immediately apparent, manifested itself over time, in her actions, true to Lisbeth herself. Mara is certainly different than Rapace, perhaps a quieter presence, but does justice to the role. Like in the novels, her interaction with Craig, an unexpected and endearing kind of banter, is one of the most promising aspects. But their relationship is not given enough time to develop so that when it develops into something deeper, it doesn’t seem entirely warranted yet.
All said, when I left the theater, I felt somewhat empowered. There was a little stomp to my step, a faint “I don’t care what these people think” ringing in my head. It was the Lisbeth effect. Fincher’s adaptation is imperfect, but it gives justice to Lisbeth’s complexity. She’s much more than a punk–he gets that. It gives me hope. I hope he’ll become riskier, not just in content but style, but at least with a good Lisbeth, he’s got his grasp on the heart of the novels. I can’t exactly say how I feel about Mara’s version of her, but I left the theater with an inkling of liking her. Even better, I wanted to know more. In that case, kudos to her and Fincher. Lisbeth is not a character who should be digested easily.