Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opening sequence (Courtesy of Sony Pictures' dragontattoo.com)

Warning: Spoilers

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy and the Swedish-language films adaptations, is a film that does not make it easy on the audience. While comparisons between the original film and novel abound, they do David Fincher’s direction and Steven Zaillian’s script a disservice.

Yes, it’s an adaptation. Things will be different. Unlike some remakes of foreign-language films, Zaillian’s script may translate, but doesn’t soften the narrative.

(Author’s Note: I have to include a strenuous warning for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. If you’re not familiar with the books or films, be very cautious about seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There are scenes which are incredibly unnerving and brutal, and a main theme is crimes perpetrated against women. Both the Swedish-language and US releases have included participation from organizations like RAINN.org, to provide resources to audiences.)

Fincher has kept the locale and narrative intact. Using a tonally opposed cold open and title sequence, he establishes the focus of the film on Lisbeth Salander and the underlying mystery. Daniel Craig, although nominally the star of the film as Mikael Blomkvist, is merely a subtle audience proxy in the event that the audience needs it. It is Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, much like Noomi Rapace in the original, who is the protagonist and anti-hero at the heart of the film.The film is quiet in a way that fits the tradition of Scandinavian films. Dialogue is spare throughout the first half of the film, and the building tension is amplified by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross which manages to be simultaneously present and unobtrusive.

These are people living damaged lives. Blomkvist’s ego, reputation and bank account shattered by a slander trial. Salander living on the fringes by choice and necessity. Add Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and his obsession with who murdered his niece Harriet forty years earlier, and mix well. Presented as a mystery, the novels and films are a heavily cloaked treatise on violence against women at an intimate and societal level. Lisbeth’s behavior and gender presentation make her a target. In refusing to conform to expectation, she is a target for everything from being labeled incompetent and antisocial by the state, leading to further presumptive victimization by agents of the state. Blomkvist is the observer, cataloging the parallel horrors experienced by other women in another time.
Fincher presents the sequences of Salander’s abuse and rape, along with her subsequent re-establishment of her own power and agency, without frills. It is a gauntlet thrown down to the viewer. To view events as something that could just as easily be happening to themselves or someone they know, to choose whether Lisbeth is justified in her actions and to understand that surviving sexual brutality does not mean that a survivor’s agency is abandoned, is discomfiting at best. Fincher’s choice to present even consensual sex and nudity in a way that isn’t overtly sexualized, fits the tone of continual confrontation embodied by Lisbeth Salander, extremely well.
This is a film that could have been remade for English-speaking audiences in a way that felt easy and familiar, and wasn’t. While surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Robin Wright and Stellan Skarsgard, the heart of the film remains the shifting dynamics between its two leads. There is an uneasy respect, and an eventual affection between Blomkvist and Salander,but they aren’t likeable, easy characters. Fincher gets the audience from point A to point B in the plot without pulling any punches, while wisely resting the weight of the film squarely on Rooney Mara’s shoulders.
Familiar to audiences from Fincher’s The Social Network as Erica Albright, and her role as Nancy Holbrooke in the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mara is a revelation as Lisbeth Salander. To play a character who is so unsympathetic on the surface without trying to offer any excuse or justification, shows a remarkable amount of restraint. She is who she is, what happens to her happens, she does what she does, and she does it without breaking stride. Mara inhabits that skin without hesitation. While Mara and Craig both bring a remarkable sangfroid to their roles, Craig also plays against type, as Blomkvist is suprisingly naifish. The contrasts and subverted expectation make the characters compelling even when the narrative loses its intensity.

Resolving the mystery, revealing the murderer(s), and salvaging Blomkivst’s reputation in the final act are where the narrative becomes too convenient. Limited by Larsson’s plot and leaving an opening for the planned sequels, Zaillian and Fincher seem to run out of steam, and it’s all too evident to the audience and the only completely flat notes in an otherwise taut and necessarily disturbing film.