Niels Arden Oplev's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was one of the great cinematic achievements of 2010, ranking No. 4 on my best films of the year wrap-up. Since American audiences are incapable of sitting through a Swedish movie with subtitles though, it was inevitable that we would get a remake based on the international best-selling novel. The good news is that in the hands of director David Fincher and a stellar cast, the American version doesn't disappoint. While it may not play as freshly to those who love the original Swedish film, this remake is still a gripping and immensely well-made retelling for American audiences.
Like the original film, the strength of this remake mainly derives from the chemistry between its two leads. Daniel Craig is a suitable choice to play Mikael Blomkvist, the shamed journalist facing a prison sentence for printing false information in his magazine. During his league of absence, Mikael is hired by Christopher Plummer's Henrik Vanger to solve the 40-year-old mystery behind his niece's murder. In need of a research assistant, Mikael enlists the help of the Gothic, bisexual computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander.
Rooney Mara, who played Jesse Eisenberg's girlfriend in "The Social Network," is unrecognizable as the iconic Lisbeth, covered with piercings and tattoos, in addition to loosing a significant amount of weight. Mara may not be a household name like Kristen Stewart, who was initially rumored to play the part. Fincher indeed made the correct choice in casting the lesser-known Mara though. In addition to drastically changing her physical appearance, Mara lives and breathes this character. She presents Lisbeth as an emotionally damaged woman who is genuinely uncomfortable around men. When in the presence of even the most refined males she'll do her best to keep her distance. If push comes to shove, however, she's never afraid to use her trusty tazer and tattoo machine.
Noomi Rapace truly deserved an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Lisbeth in the original Swedish film. One thing that might give Mara the advantage over Rapace, however, is the fact that she's several years younger. This not only better contributes to the title of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," but also adds to the dysfunction of this character. It's truly shocking is see a girl so closed-off, damaged and ruthless, yet still so intelligent and daring, at such a young age. Mara sells every moment as Lisbeth, who may either be a psychopath or just trying to build that image to avoid confrontation. A part of me thinks she might even suffer from a mild case of Asperger's syndrome.
Although both versions of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" share similar scenes, none of them feel the same. Fincher distinguishes his film with inspired editing and camera angles. The opening credit sequence is a prominent standout with the spirit of the world's most twisted music video. Fincher also never down plays the violence for American audiences. There's a moment when you think that a particular rape scene might take place off screen. Yet, Fincher shows the rape in its entirety. As horrifying and unsettling as the scene is to witness, it's nevertheless crucial to the story.
One specific difference between this film and the Swedish version is Lisbeth's feelings towards Mikael. In Oplev's film, it's clear that Lisbeth cares for Mikael in ways she's never felt for a man before. At the same time, however, she seems reluctant to love Mikael due to their ages, backgrounds, and her past relationships with men. As Mikael grows closer, Lisbeth attempts to move further away. Here she appears much more open to engaging in a relationship with Mikael. At a certain point she even seems to believe that they might have some sort of happily ever after. Both interpretations of the character work in their own ways. This version may be a little more tragic though, since it inescapably dawns on Lisbeth that matters between her and Mikael will not work out.
Since both films are so similar, and still somehow very different, it's hard to say which "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" reigns supreme. I feel like I need to watch both movies back to back to make an informed decision. But the fact that this version earns comparison to its predecessor should come as a high compliment to Fincher and company. Just as Oplev's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was one of last year's best films, Fincher's take on the story is one of 2011's best.