Subpar material gets a tonal and aesthetic – and, by extension, thematic – boost from directorial virtuosity in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s American remake of the Stieg Larsson best-seller that was first adapted for the screen in its native Sweden, to largely dismal results, in 2009. Working from Steven Zaillian’s sharply modulated script, Fincher hews closely to his source material’s narrative, which fixes on the investigation by disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) into the decades-old death of Harriet Vanger, who disappeared without a trace from her family’s island home and whom wealthy scion Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) believes was offed by a member of his wretched, Nazi-populated family (which includes Stellan Skarsgård’s heir apparent). This quest eventually compels Mikael to enlist the services of punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), whom in the most significant of many subtle changes Fincher and Zaillian make to their tale, is eloquently fleshed out into a three-dimensional human being, rather than the super-goth-badass caricature that Noomi Rapace brought to grating life in Niels Arden Oplev’s substandard original film.
Fincher shoots Lisbeth in alienating compositions (behind her head, to the side of the frame) to capture the way in which she – most obviously via her mohawk, leather get-ups, and piercings – has retreated within herself as a defense mechanism against a lifetime of male abuse, and Mara embodies her with a stoic anger that’s muted by a constant look of hurt, vulnerability and fear in her wide-open eyes. Lisbeth feels real in this Dragon Tattoo without ever seeming any less imposing or intimidating a figure of righteous fury, and Craig matches Mara’s nuanced performance with his own delicately reserved turn, making Mikael less an unctuous know-it-all than – as with an undercurrent about Harriet’s religiosity that dovetails with Mikael’s own daughter’s turn toward faith – a lost soul in desperate search of clarity and purpose. It’s Fincher, however, who’s most responsible for this version’s overriding form/content improvements. The director refuses to shy away from the material’s more tawdry, titillating rape-and-violence elements, and yet even during said moments, he rigorously prioritizes characters’ frenzied emotions above salacious nudity and nastiness – a fact most stunningly felt in the infamous assault sequence between Lisbeth and her vile legal guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), a scene that oozes otherworldly dread (the camera panning away from the bedroom’s closed door) while sticking, with piercing intensity, to Lisbeth’s anguished countenance.
As befitting a Fincher film, the opening credit sequence – here, a motif-laden montage of inky keyboards, computer plugs, flowers, dragons, and faces in agonized screams being shattered by fists – is alone worth the price of admission, and the same can be said of Trent Reznor’s score of unholy, pulsating electronic rhythms. Dragon Tattoo’s steely, color-filtered palette eerily evokes the story’s portrait of a present turned ashen by crimes of the past, and Fincher’s propulsive editing (often moving the story forward at a breakneck pace sans dialogue) and ominously gliding cinematography create an atmosphere of inevitable doom and heartache even for those who might, in terms of the story’s nominal whodunit plot, eventually triumph. It’s a film that’s directed with such dexterity, confidence and exacting attention to conveying mood and theme through visual and aural means that it manages the feat – one not just considerable but, on the basis of its Swedish predecessor, seemingly impossible – of turning what was transparently scandalous and simplistic anti-misogynistic, women-and-their-troublesome daddies material into a sleek, sumptuous vision of wounded people searching, with varying degrees of success, to find salvation through human connection.