I approach all Hollywood remakes with a healthy dose of skepticism. Actually, to be honest, it’s probably more accurate to describe my attitude as a preset negative bias. What most frustrates me about Hollywood remakes is not the implicit assumption that the remake will reach a bigger audience, but the fact the studio executives and financiers backing these projects are right. As even a cursory glance at Box Office Mojo’s international statistics will show, English language, Hollywood productions dominate the charts, far outstripping their national competitors in gross profits. According to the BFI’s Statistical Yearbook for 2011, American films had a 78% share of the British market. European films had a paltry 2.1% market share, but even that was positively glowing compared with the 0.8% share of films from the rest of the world (excluding Bollywood). What makes this picture even more disheartening is that American films have such overwhelming dominance at the box office despite only constituting 37.9% of all British releases. By comparison, European and world cinema made up 18% and 9% of all UK releases respectively. The conclusion is clear: even though British audiences have access to a wide diversity of films, they consistently choose to watch American products.
This is of course a very complex issue, and my explanations (I’m sure) are inadequate; but I think part of the reason for this is simply that most people just don’t like reading subtitles and have grown accustomed to the conventions of Hollywood films. At this point I will admit that the term Hollywood is an enormous oversimplification of a development, production and distribution system that has created and brought to market many of my best-loved films. I do not (or at least try not) to use the term as shorthand for poor quality or trashy commercial fodder – though the system certainly produces more than a lot of that. Nor do I make the assumption that European or world cinema is inherently superior. My complaint is more about the conservatism of our film culture – a state of affairs so perfectly epitomised by ubiquity of American remakes of “foreign language hits”.
Why then, you may ask, am I reviewing the remake of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo without having seen the original Swedish language production? A fair question – but one I’m afraid that has a rather banal and uncomplicated answer. I started watching it several months ago, but was simply too exhausted to make it past the first ten minutes after my then pregnant wife and young daughter went to sleep. New releases took priority soon thereafter and…“Excuses, excuses”…I know, I know. All I’ll say is that after seeing the remake, I will definitely see the 2009 original, but can’t imagine that doing so will in any way lessen the high regard I have for David Fincher’s film.
Fincher is one of a new generation of American auteurs – along with Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Richard Linklater, PT Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and Alexander Payne – who continue to produce outstanding, highly distinctive works within the Hollywood system. He first blasted his way into my consciousness with his breakout feature debut, Se7en: a film I am unashamed to say I watched twice in one night (with nothing but a “rewind break” in between) on the weekend before a final exam. I passed…barely, but as you might well guess, I’m able to recall more about that film than the course or the test I sat. What impressed me most about that film (the flawless script, performances, score and production design aside) was Fincher’s captivating imagery and visual style, and his enviable ability to sustain and release feelings of intense suspense in his viewers. Se7en hooked you like a salt-soaked mariner and just never let you go.
His next feature, The Game, was no less gripping. Once more displaying his mastery of the thriller form, and his flare at delivering surprise endings, Fincher’s story about a man unable to let go of his past, or face up to the reality of what he has become, introduced a thematic subject that would crop up again and again throughout his career. Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (‘Dragon Tattoo’) all explore this theme through one of more of its male characters – often the protagonist, but also his secondary characters (such as Martin and Henrik Vanger in the case of his latest film). The one exception happens to be the slightest of Fincher’s movies, Panic Room – a satisfying, if work-a-day home-under-attack thriller starring Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker. But even here there is a certain thematic consistency with Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac, and Se7en which each feature female characters overwhelmed and threatened by serial killers as well as male violence and obsession generally.
We can therefore rightly see Dragon Tattoo as a significant milestone in Fincher’s career to date, bringing together his two dominant themes into one piece through the stories of his co-protagonists. Indeed, this is the most ambitious narrative structure he has attempted, as for nearly half the run time, Fincher and his screenwriter Steve Zaillian maintain two parallel stories: the first focusing on disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who must solve the disappearance of a young woman (Harriet Vanger) in order to take down the man who has brought about his downfall; the second, the story of resourceful young computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, struggling to break free from an abusive past and a patriarchal system and culture that will exploit her at every opportunity. Cross-cutting between these stories adds magnificent tension to the first half, but Zaillian and Fincher also clearly relish the thematic and narrative possibilities this juxtaposition serves up. For as Blomkvist’s thorough retread of a 40-year-old cold case draws us closer to the detestable secrets at the heart of the Vanger dynasty, so the unfolding horror of Lisbet’s exploitation by her new guardian (she is a ward of the state) prepares us for what is to come.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, you’d be well advised to note the 18 certificate. I’ve seen far tougher films, but the brief depictions of violence and mutilation are frequent and strong enough to merit a warning for those with sensitive dispositions. Stieg Larsson’s on the nose title for the source novel is probably enough to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. Män som hatar kvinnor translates as “Men who hate Women”, and indeed, there are a few really nasty specimens about. It is interesting to note, as Anton Bitel points out in his excellent review for Sight and Sound (vol 22:2), that Larsson wrote his novel in part to exorcise his guilt “for failing to intervene…when, aged 15, he witnessed the gang rape of a teenager named Lisbeth.” Fincher’s film tackles male violence towards women with great aplomb, and adds a layer of complexity by also drawing attention to the guilt felt by Lisbeth’s guardian for his actions.
Yorick van Wageningen has a difficult role portraying Lisbeth’s new guardian, but his subtle performance ensures that his character isn’t reduced to a mere caricature of evil. The rest of the cast too are uniformly excellent. Daniel Craig gives his most compelling performance to date as Mikael Blomkvist. Rooney Mara is riveting as the eponymous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Stellan Skarsgaard deserves particular recognition for his turn as Martin Vanger, the heir to the Vanger dynasty. But this discussion also brings me to one of the biggest missteps of the film, which is the casting of Joely Richardson. She plays a crucial role in resolving the mystery at the heart of the story, but fails to convince – not because of any flaw in her acting, but simply because she doesn’t look old enough to play the part.
[SPOILER ALERT: skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film]
I’ll touch briefly on my two other major reservations about the film. The first is that I did not find the sexual relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael convincing. I just didn’t feel that enough was done to give the audience enough clues as to Lisbeth’s motivation in initiating sex with him, especially under the circumstances and in view of her very recent rape. Perhaps one could say that she took advantage of him at a moment of vulnerability, but if that was the case, I would have wanted to see it complicate their relationship more than it did. My second reservation is that the film’s final coda went further than I think it should in tying up the loose ends. Once the central mystery is solved, which constitutes the end of act 2, what remains is for Mikael to clear his name by bringing down the man who initially discredited him, and for Lisbeth to secure her freedom. But where Fincher and Zaillian excelled at precise and lean story-telling in the first two acts – supported in no small part by very sharp and pacy editing – the final act failed to engage me to the same degree. I don’t mean to suggest that the ending was completely unsatisfying; it’s just that I would have much preferred more loose ends and mystery than I got.
All in all, Dragon Tattoo confirms David Fincher’s status as one of the finest contemporary American filmmakers, and an undisputed master of the thriller form. His brave and unusual decision not to relocate the setting of the story to America singles his film out from the string of remakes that have hit our screens over the past few years, and perhaps also demonstrates the clout he wields in Hollywood. Whether any of that translates into success at the upcoming Oscars, where it has been nominated in 5 categories, is anyone’s guess. The Academy is notoriously fickle (and that’s about as kind a thing I’m likely to say), but there’s no doubting the great skill and meticulous craftmanship that went into making this picture. It certainly surpassed all of my expectations and I would highly recommend it.