Dir. David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan “The Swede” Skarsgard
I have a weird love of cover songs. Most people seem to get annoyed when they hear another version of something the already love, but to me its endlessly fascinating. I’ve made a long tradition of collecting covers, especially rare ones -- live versions of RATM covering the Clash, Nirvana playing “Smoke on the Water,” Willie Nelson covering Toots and the Maytals. They’re almost never better than the originals, due to the simple fact that the reason anyone knows about the original version to begin with is because it captured some kind of unique magic that made it memorable, made it work. A cover, even a very good cover, is unlikely to recapture that magic, recreate that particular balance, which is why most people don’t seem to like them all that much. They hear what’s not there, and it ends up a very frustrating experience in almost getting what you want. A tease, a persistent reminder of what you’re not getting. But to me, a cover is a fascinating look into the soul and the mechanics of a song -- its a scientific experiment in art, altering the variables and producing a different result. More than just revealing what worked about the original, it can sometimes emphasize different things, bring out hidden aspects of a work which lurk somewhere deep down in the original.
An adaptation or a remake, at its best, does the same thing: it plays the same notes, but with a different flavor. But I have to admit, I couldn’t see the point in having David Fincher cover this particular song. Let’s face it: Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” novel is not exactly a classic masterpiece of literature. It’s a fun little thriller with some great ideas, but if we’re all going to be honest here I think we all know that it’s not a multifluously rich fount of humanity which we’re all going to revisit every few years and find that it takes on new meaning and offers up new secrets. It’s basically a trashy nazi serial killer mystery thriller with one truly classic character but enough plot for ten books, only one of which is really all that interesting. And it was already made into a perfectly servicable Swedish film not even two years ago, which did a pretty good job getting the goods out of the material. But, both the book and movie were profitable, and wouldn’t you know it, suddenly there’s a big expensive Hollywood version with big stars and a name-brand director. Funny how that works out. I mean, I don’t think Fincher really has it in him to make a bad movie, but it’s sort of hard to imagine this was completely a labor of love and when someone mentioned that it was probably a good business move everyone got all offended and asked indignantly how dare anyone sully the good name of this film by bringing up something as vulgar as money.
But even so, it’s pretty good. If this seems a little more crass than remaking the equally unnecessary FRIGHT NIGHT, it makes up for it by being solidly classy across the board. And I can’t lie, the different flavors don’t combine quite as well for me as they did in the Swedish version, but at the same time they do exactly what I want a good cover song to do, which is change the balance of the recipe so new flavors emerge.
For starters, I think it’s time we all got together as a nation and admitted that, all things being equal, Daniel Craig is somewhat more attractive and badass than Michael Nyqvist. I mean, Tom Cruise took Nyqvist down in that new MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie (spoiler) and I’m pretty goddam sure that any fucking James Bond equal to or greater than Timothy Dalton could take Tom Cruise, so by the law of transitive badassery, Daniel Craig is at the very least four times as badass as Nyqvist (that’s right, do the math. Yup, Dalton outranks Roger Moore.) That alone gives the film a very different balance. In the Swedish film, Nyqvist is basically a dorky middle-aged journalist who looks kind of like a doughy, burnt-out version of Jason Bateman. In this one, he’s fucking Daniel Craig, so even though he does the same things he seems way more epic. You’d be interested in watching Daniel Craig do just about anything, even slowly typing on a macbook in his underwear. So, uh, happy birthday to you, I guess.
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, is way less Hollywood Epic than Noomi Rapace was in the original. Again, she does the same things, but her performance is more subtle. She acts more like you might imagine a person who has suffered the things that Lisbeth has suffered would act. She’s withdrawn, quiet, won’t look anyone in the eyes. Rapace was all ferocious tenacity in the role: She stares people down, while Mara won’t even look at them. They’re equally oblivious to the usual rules of social etiquette, but with Rapace it seems like an intentionally defiant way of showing how little she cares about their rules. With Mara it seems like she maybe has aspergers. It’s a good performance, but a different one. Also she has bleached eyebrows and bangs personally forged by the devil in the darkest pit of haircut hell, so she looks a little more like a creepy alien child than Rapace did. In the sense that I’m pretty sure that’s what the space baby from 2001 would have grown up to look like. And as realistic and damaged as Mara wants to play her, when she gets naked there’s no mistaking that she has the Body Of A Hollywood Starlet. Rapace was all gristle and sinew; Mara’s just a pretty girl with a bad haircut.
Anyway, with a more charismatic Mikael and a less charismatic Lisbeth, the balance of power shifts a little bit. Lisbeth’s story is much more interesting, but you sort of want to watch Mikael because he’s fucking Daniel Craig. This makes the two stories a little more equal, but maybe not necessarily better, because even if Craig is a more compelling hero, you’d never really want to watch a movie about his story. Lisbeth is the film’s more dynamic character and story arc, but she’s a little toned down here, which makes her more realistic but also less fun to watch. Except when naked.
Fincher works the story a little differently, too. For one thing, he begins with, of all fool things, this crazy fucking music video set to Trent Reznor’s version of fucking “Immigrant Song” whhhhaaaaaaaaaat? Sweden is indeed a land of ice and snow, but that’s about as much as that song has to do with the plot. It does, however, signal that Fincher is back in kinetic mode, zipping the film along at breakneck speed and cutting out everything he can. It also signals that this is gonna be a kind of goofy rock n’ roll production which tacitly acknowledges the pulpiness of the original material and has some fun with it. Yes, this grim Swedish tale of Nazi Misogynist Serial Killer Rapists is a pretty good time at the movies. For all his grim themes, Fincher has a oft-underestimated knack for putting a germ of human warmth into his serial killer films, and he succeeds here most completely by allowing us to like our protagonists. Lisbeth actually got some big laughs out of he audience I saw it with, and I think it’s both honest and Fincher’s intent. There’s something kind of adorable about Mara’s intense earnestness, and even though it makes her a little less badass, Fincher manages to make it endearing and vulnerable instead. And Daniel Craig is vastly more emotive and charming than Nyqvist ever was, making their somewhat ill-developed romance at least feel satisfying. Even Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is warmer than the stark blue-black of the Swedish version (hey, does this mean that Fincher Un-Sweded this film?) working in some rusty oranges, moss greens, and earthy browns.
Fincher’s attempt to streamline things helps the movie zip along with only the things it absolutely needs, but there’s not much he can do to alleviate the central problem, which is that the whole murder mystery thing is essentially a giant red herring thrown into the middle of another, less interesting story. Writer Steve Zaillian (adapting the book instead of the Swedish film) spends more time on Michael’s legal problems and home life, which is sort of necessary considering the ending, but kind of unnecessary to anyone who wants to be entertained. He’s presumably more faithful to the book in including characters like Michael’s black sheep religious daughter, who in this version cues him in to the biblical clues. Only problem is, that even further cuts down on the interaction between Mikael and Lisbeth (the Swedish version has Lisbeth contribute this information), who are completely separate and off each other’s radar for literally half the film, with Lisbeth’s story more interesting but less important to the plot. The Swedish version wisely focuses on Lisbeth’s continued interest and meddling from afar in Michael’s life. Maybe less faithful, but it works better.
Likewise, Zaillian cuts the murder mystery down to the bone, sparing us most of the complicated genealogy, red herrings, and possible suspects. It streamlines things, but also significantly lessens the impact of the mystery itself. Look folks, I don’t want to spoil this for you, but there are four recognizable names in the cast, and three of them obviously are not the murderer. And the way it plays here, Mikael figures the whole thing out himself, and Lisbeth kind of works as his secretary, doing the legwork on minor details. The poster puts Mikael up front, with Lisbeth behind him in the sidekick role, and that’s pretty accurate to the film’s presentation of them. It works fine, except that fucking Lisbeth is the sole truly classic creation in this whole damn work of fiction.
I really believe that she’s a classic, unique, and potentially prototypical character (particularly as a female character) in the mold of great larger-than-life film colorful protagonists like The Man With No Name, Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, even Jack Sparrow. So what’s the point of having her play second fiddle to some bland, hunky do-gooder journalist? He should be her foil, the Watson to her Holmes, her link to the world she’s otherwise too eccentric and extraordinary for. Would anyone give two shits about Mikael’s murky legal and personal problems if Lisbeth wasn’t around to add some electricity to things? Absolutely fucking not. The story is told from Mikael’s perspective to give us an in to her world. But it’s his perspective that’s important, not his story. I’m sure Zaillian faithfully adapted the book, but he would have been wiser to follow it’s intent, not it’s structure.
And so we’re left with a bare-bones murder investigation bookended by some 30 minutes of unrelated goop about Mikael’s life. It’s better integrated and more effective here, but is being better at the worst parts of the thing such a good idea? Zaillian has a long history of writing accurate and serviceable but sometimes meandering scripts like GANGS OF NEW YORK, AMERICAN GANGSTER, and wow, SCHINDLER’S LIST. Ok, so sometimes it works. But here I think he got caught up in adapting the story accurately, and got away from adapting the story’s heart accurately. I mean, the original title was “Men Who Hate Women” -- that’s the whole point of the narrative, and the central theme that ties Lisbeth’s rape, her mistrust, her vulnerability, and Mikael’s philandering together with the ongoing Nazi murders. But although all those elements continue to exist here, they simply don’t add up to any kind of coherent theme about misogyny. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens because it’s in the book.
The slavish devotion to the detail at the expense of the spirit leads to odd choices which never really pay off in any meaningful way. Case in point? The whole thing is still set in Sweden, but it’s a very awkward Sweden where everyone speaks in accents, but not necessarily Swedish accents, headlines are written in Swedish but documents important to the plot are written in English, and where the villains are Swedish but the Heroes are English. Would it have been too fucking hard to just set the thing in Canada or something? Would American audiences never have accepted that there are emotionally crippled nubile 20-something female hackers on this continent?
So ultimately, this new adaptation is slicker, more fun, more structurally cohesive, and works better in nearly every way except for the only one which is really important. It does exactly what I was hoping it would do, which is change that delicate chemical formula and help better divine how the parts add up to a whole. But like a perfect cocktail, the beauty of it is in getting the ingredients to add up just so. You can tweak it and explore elements which were previously hidden, but you’re not going to quite get that magic that happens when it all works together. In this case, what you’ve got is a perfectly executed, technically proficient thriller, but I can’t imagine anyone watching it and understanding what all this Dragon Tattoo hoopla is about. It fails to quite realize on screen the elements which are so unique and special about the source material, and instead succeeds quite admirably at nailing the parts which are fine but not especially memorable. The Swedish version might be clunkier on some of the details, but look at the poster: there’s Lisbeth, staring right into the camera, daring someone to ask where Mikael is (hint: not anywhere on the poster). Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere close to the technical master that Fincher is, but like a good documentarian he knows to put the interesting thing on screen and get out of its way. Fincher and Zaillian, for all their skill, could learn something from his focus. If you’re gonna cover a song, you gotta at least know why.
PS: Also, is that Julian Sands playing a young Christopher Plummer?! The fuck did he get in there?