Film discussion

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Looking back at Fincher’s thriller

It’s not every day a film trailer declares the film it’s selling you as the “feel bad film of Christmas”, so it was a massive amount of confidence that David Fincher‘s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did exactly that with a superb teaser trailer that gave very little away for the uninitiated, all scored to Karen O’s darkly intense reinterpretation of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’.

Arriving in cinemas for a Christmas season that boasted the likes of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, David Fincher’s film stood out and unsurprisingly did not become a massive box office success.

While being a remake and the second adaptation of a very successful novel within a two-year time span, with its $90 million budget and incredibly dark and very adult tone, the film could be seen as one of the last times that a major Hollywood studio tried to attempt a movie franchise that was very much for adults only.

Based upon the first of a massively successful series of novels by Stieg Larsson, who sadly died just before they were published, rewatching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a mere seven years after its premiere feels like a vindication that Hollywood is not in the business of making movies for grown-ups in the way that it used to.

Sure, the likes of Widows or Bad Times at the El Royale can sneak through on the odd time of the year, but with Sony attempting to turn Larrson’s work into a dark, adult series of movies that is now in the process of being rebooted with a new creative team and cast, albeit with a lower 15 rating compared to the deserved 18 this one got, indicates with sadness how things have changed.

First adapted in 2009 into a critically acclaimed production by Niels Arden Oplev, the first adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gained incredibly positive reviews from critics around the world and a high box office, but was met with a law of diminishing returns when it came to the release of the two sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest.

The books, first published in 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively, had been part of a wave of Nordic Noir that had captured the imaginations of critics and audiences, and was especially infiltrating its way into the minds of audiences in the UK where the likes of The Killing (also remade in the US in the form of a television series) and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series became increasingly popular.

The adaptation of the books in Sweden had made an international star of Noomi Rapace and led to the book’s lead character, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, becoming an icon. With her gothic look, computer hacking abilities, and taste for doling out justice to those who victimized women, on top of being incredibly smart and complex, meant that many were curious as to who Hollywood would cast in that role.

Names such as Natalie Portman, Scarlet Johansson, and Ellen Page were mentioned, but in the end director David Fincher ended up casting Rooney Mara whom he had worked with previously on The Social Network, while the role of journalist Mikael Blomkvist went to Daniel Craig.

With a screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Mission: Impossible), and a major supporting cast made up of Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and Joely Richardson, Jeff Cronenweth as director of photography and a music score provided by frequent Fincher composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the resulting film was a beautifully bleak and violent study of toxic masculinity, restriction of press freedoms and a brilliantly engrossing mystery that brilliantly conveyed the intelligent pulp quality that made Larrson’s book series such a best seller.

Its focus on a controlled pace, but one which never feels slow or boring, intense delivery of exposition, central mystery and character development, made it feel like a modern version of 70’s thrillers such as Klute, but one that featured copious amounts of computer hacking and violence.

Being a Hollywood interpretation of a previously made European film meant that many had initially expected a Hollywood version to tone down the more adult qualities and confrontational approach to sexual violence that had characterized Larsson’s novel and Oplev’s film, but if anything the director who fought hard to keep the dark ending of Se7en doubled down on those elements.

READ MORE: This month we’re celebrating Noirvember – catch up on all of our film noir features here at Set The Tape

Lisbeth’s rape and abuse at the hands of her legal guardian when she simply wants to get the money that he legally is in control off are some of the most agonizing scenes put to film in recent years and one could maybe argue that Fincher’s camera should have kept panning away from the closed-door instead of going back in to visualize the assault, but the film has a brazen belief to aim hard for its R rating.

Zaillian’s screenplay sticks very closely to the book and surprisingly the Swedish version, and Fincher’s direction is perfect as always, managing to be both incredibly stylish without sacrificing the substance of the storytelling. Opening with one of the most brilliant credit sequences in modern times, as if the James Bond producers got David Lynch to direct a credit sequence for a 007 movie complete with the Karen-O/Reznor/Ross version of “Immigrant Song”, it sets out the stall of the film right away; this will be dark, highly visual, sexual and as distressing as anything imaginable.

Even more brilliantly, the film takes its time, much like the source material and the Swedish film version. Clocking in at the 158-minute mark, the film manages to set up its story in the opening act, but still spend time with Lisbeth and her awful plight before it allows the central mystery to catch up to her.

For the second half, the film becomes a wonderful two-hander of sorts between Mara and Craig who make for a wonderfully compelling Lisbeth and Mikael.  The late Swedish actor Mikael Nyquist was a very fine Blomkvist, but Craig looks the part in a way similar to how Larrson described him and does a brilliant job of portraying the vulnerable qualities of the character that shows how much over his head he gets as his investigation into the Vanger family and the murder that has haunted them continues. For an actor famous for portraying the most famous spy in the world, his performance here is a reminder of what a fine actor he is; just look at the fear on his face when he is asked into the house of the killer “for a drink”.

Mara, of course, was the one with the toughest job. Lisbeth became an icon under the performance of Rapace who subsequently became a major international star of the back of the Swedish originals, and to step into the role meant a high degree of critical scrutiny, but she more than holds her own throughout and makes the part her own. It’s the classic definition of being the same but different. She has the same haunted look as Rapace did, but there is still a vulnerability there that one hopes to see melt throughout.

Her performance manages to be both subtle when it needs to be, and also fiery when that’s called for also. She steps into the part fantastically and is more than a worthy successor to Rapace.

One can question whether or not an American version really needed to exist of this book. Hollywood has remade foreign films before and its the question that one finds themselves asking when such remakes are frequently disappointing. Even when a remake goes well, such as Let Me In, the remake of Let the Right One In (also Swedish), one still asks, “but, why?”.

Some may still have that question here, but when the film is as great as this one is, it’s really hard to complain. Having spent millions buying the rights, and showing their intent in signing Mara, Craig, Fincher and Zaillian up for the sequels, there must have been some disappointment when the film did moderately well instead of becoming the massive blockbuster expected of it (unfortunately a recurring thing with Sony Pictures output a lot of the time).

READ MORE: A profile of director David Fincher

Zaillian continued work on the screenplays, with Seven writer Andrew Kevin Walker allegedly being brought in to do some work on them as well, while Mara and Craig frequently cited in interviews that they were more than eager to return their roles. As it was, the two sequels Larrson wrote never got the Hollywood treatment with Sony instead opting to reboot and recast, with production opting to go more in the direction of the non-Larsson written novels by David Lagercrantz, put together after his death and which hadn’t been made in any language prior.

It is a shame for sure. The trailers for The Girl in the Spider’s Web look promising to a degree, and Claire Foy definitely looks the part of Lisbeth, but with emphasis on the trailer placed on action and motorbike chases, it looks to be a different proposition to Fincher’s film, as if the film wants to be part of a cycle of action movies that owe more of a debt to Jason Bourne rather than the dark, tragic undercurrents and intelligent pulp thrills that made Larrson’s work so commercially and critically successful.

As Hollywood turns ever more to franchises that feature capes and superheroes (enjoyable films for sure), it’s a shame that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t catch on more. It’s $232 million box office gross was far from a flop, but given the hype and expectations as well as the budget, it barely broke even. Here was a potential franchise for grown-ups and with grown-up concerns. Yes, it was a tough watch, but it was one that had the ability to draw the audience into an engrossing narrative, one with mystery, suspense, and a dangerous sexual charge which treated its adult audience as exactly that. Adults.

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