The Swedish translation of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is Men Who Hate Women, and the 2009 Niels Arden Oplev adaptation made sure to lay that hatred bare, introducing audiences to the Vanger clan, a Swedish industrial family of the first order with deep and long ties to the Nazis and unhealthy animosity for any with sympathies aligned alongside the better nature of man or God. To even things out, Larsson fortunately created a victim of the depravity of men and a modern avenging angel, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace who grabs this one-of-a-kind role in her teeth and refuses to let go) with all of the requisite skills and resources to wreck havoc on her enemies that would make the Old Testament God feel like a rank amateur. It could be argued that Salander is the scion of that God, the one who loved to protect his followers by any means necessary.
The Oplev movie is a marvel of pop pulp thrills, with its parallel narrative lines — the tiny hint of a backstory for hacker-researcher extraordinaire Salander and that of disgraced crusading journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), modeled on Larsson as the lone lover of women — that converge when the two team up to catch a killer of women in the house of Vanger. All manner of evil steps to the fore, dark and dangerous, but we know Blomkvist and Salander will prevail because Oplev keeps his white knight’s beacon spotless to a fault.
Which left the door open for this David Fincher remake, too soon, some would say, on the heels of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the international sensation with the two sequels and the bestselling status of the novels, all after the untimely death of Larsson with a monumental battle taking place over the rights of an unfinished manuscript for a fourth book locked away on his hard drive.
Yet, why remake a solidly entertaining thriller, beyond simply making it more accessible to English language audiences, unless another nightmare loomed in the recesses?
And Fincher, coming off the success of The Social Network and with a filmography that includes Seven, Panic Room and Zodiac, was the only choice with any real hope of driving the material deeper into pitch black territory. What are the Vangers, if not a family that could have given birth to Spacey’s John Doe from Seven, and how about the futile investigation into the broken strands pursued in the real-life hunt for the Zodiac killer, where one break, one needle in a haystack is all that separates that case from the discoveries in Dragon Tattoo?
What is needed here, though, to make it all come together is a center, a Lisbeth Salander to make everyone forget the swift kick that sends the bridge of your nose straight into your brain, and against all odds Fincher finds just such a force in Rooney Mara who lurked around the edges of Social Network as the girlfriend of the genius behind Facebook, the girl who spurned that beautiful mind and launched social media. Mara was that girl and now she’s The Girl.
Rapace’s Salander was a bit of a bulldog, short and blunt, with a still child-like frame, a girl who had been stunted by the abuse she had suffered but fueled by a fully adult awareness of the pain. Mara, in contrast, is longer and leaner, or so it seems, still a girl also, but a gawky bird, a phoenix-in-waiting, and we don’t have to wait long for her to ignite.
She confronts the slights of a white shirt (Steven Berkoff) who dares to question her impeccable abilities as a researcher, a petty bag snatcher who attempts to grab her backpack and damages her laptop and the lecherous Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), the new state-appointed trustee of her affairs who sexually molests her once and comes to dearly regret his misdeed. Fincher playfully alludes to The Godfather as Salander informs Bjurman that if anything happens to her, she will still have her revenge. We see the dragon tattoo of the title on Salander as she baptizes herself after the assault, dresses her wounds and unleashes her own inner hounds of hell, which ends up serving as a mere precursor to her later efforts once she hooks up with Blomkvist to uncover, “a killer of women.”
And what of Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the armorless knight, who is a lady killer of a far different sort. Blomkvist, the bright white light in this dark dark world, is a lover of women, and here, thanks to Fincher, Craig and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Moneyball), we see the effect Blomkvist has on women, from Erika Berger (Robin Wright), his editorial partner at Millennium, to Anita Vanger (Joel Richardson), one of the Vangers who got away but seems drawn to Blomkvist, and even Salander, the bisexual wild-child who falls hard despite herself. Women respond to him, his goodness, while men, especially evil men, set their sights on his vulnerability, his eagerness to protect others yet leave himself dangerously exposed.
Craig and Mara, in the capable hands of Fincher, give life to the deeply rich textures in the Larsson narrative that could only be hinted at in the film, even one that is over two and a half hours long. Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is all about The Girl and alerts us to the fact that this initial mark is only the beginning of an epic tale into the dark heart of a society that has hated and hurt with impunity until now, but a new day is dawning. Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)