Though I did see the first two original Swedish films, I never bothered to complete the trilogy. I didn't read Steig Larsson's novels, either. Despite the fact that I could certainly understand the appeal of the film adaptations, I simply didn't find them good enough to invest further time and attention in the franchise. The first film in particular, though it had a wonderfully thrilling second half, had a rather tedious first half that was loaded with plot holes. The point being that when news came of an American remake for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wasn't remotely upset. In fact, I was in the minority who thought that there was room for improvement. Furthermore, I knew that this was being made by David Fincher, a director more than talented enough to deliver a solid remake. I was very optimistic about this film, and it still delivered far more than I expected.
For those who aren't already aware, this story is about a very unusual partnership between two very different investigators. The case concerns Harriet Vanger (newcomer Moa Garpendal), a young heiress who strangely disappeared over forty years prior. Her uncle is the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants to solve her apparent murder before he dies.
Because an unusual case demands an unusual detective, Henrik turns to Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an independent journalist who recently lost a libel suit against a huge corporation. He was fined a huge sum of money and lost all his credibility, though he wasn't given the prison sentence mentioned in the original film. Right off the bat, this remake improves on the original by closing a whole lotta plot holes (why was Mikel allowed to travel freely when he had a pending prison sentence?)
Anyway, Mikael works toward solving Harriet's case until he finds need for assistance. He solicits help from the eponymous Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a young hacking ace who could charitably be described as a radical feminist. However, this partnership doesn't actually happen until the movie's halfway point. The original film (in my opinion, anyway) never really took off until the two protagonists met up, though Fincher takes a lot of very intelligent steps toward avoiding this pitfall.
The first half of this film is kept entertaining partly because the characters are given so much to do. Lisbeth, for example, was only given a rape subplot in the original film. In the remake, Lisbeth's rape plotline is kept intact and she also starts an investigation of her own. Not only does this reveal so much more about the character and her skill set, but it also sets up some very important plot points for the third act.
As for Mikael, he gets a few scenes with his teenage daughter, whom I don't remember getting so much as a mention in the original films. Mikael's affair with his editor (Erika Berger, played by Robin Wright) is also given a far heavier role in the proceedings, and they do a lot more bickering as to the future of their Millenium Magazine. Oh, and Mikael also gets a stray cat to keep him company. A lot of these subplots are just padding that don't amount to much, but at least it's something. They all go a long way toward developing the characters, keeping them active, and reinforcing other story threads throughout the film.
Another big part of what keeps this film entertaining is of course in the technical aspects. Not only does the screenplay feature some very good dialogue, but it's very smart in how it uses flashbacks and speeches to convey exposition in a compelling manner. The cinematography and editing also help a lot, as there are plenty of visual devices that advance the mystery in some very inventive ways. Last but not least, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross makes their previous Oscar-winning work in The Social Network sound like a two-hour loop of "Pop Goes the Weasel." Every single note of music in this film is positively dripping with atmosphere and tension, masterfully elevating the overall work from a good film to a great one.
(Side note: One of Lisbeth's hacker friends is briefly seen wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt. Ha ha.)
Getting back to the visuals, Fincher very wisely decided against relocating this film to America. This remake takes place in the story's native Sweden, though the narrative does occasionally travel to London as well. This gives the movie a very large scope, in addition to a distinctly European feel unique to Hollywood blockbusters. I should also add that the entire film looks bleached out, which beautifully lends itself to the snow-covered setting and the film's bleak tone.
From start to finish, the entire cast is wonderful. Daniel Craig does a surprisingly good job at playing an everyman, even if it is occasionally hard to forget that he's friggin' 007. Christopher Plummer's character is basically an exposition machine, but Henrik is written and performed with such droll wit that he's strangely a lot of fun to spend time with. Robin Wright also deserves quite a bit of credit for taking a pseudo-love interest with very little screen time or effect on the plot, and making the character interesting to watch. Of course, it helps that Wright and Craig act very nicely off each other.
Still, this is unquestionably Rooney Mara's show. Mara really went to the mat for Lisbeth, depicting scenes of nudity, chain-smoking, anger, rape, insanity, calmness, great intelligence, and sex. And that isn't even getting started on all the piercings and shavings that she voluntarily got for the role. Lisbeth's character is all over the emotional spectrum in this movie, and Mara does an admirable job at selling every moment. What's even better is how Mara portrays the character's confidence. Through talent, determination, or just stating things in a po-faced matter-of-fact manner, Lisbeth is a character who always gets her way. She's going to do what she wants and get what she needs, no matter who tries to say that she can't. Not only is this very entertaining to see, but it leads to a subtly awesome moment during the one time when Lisbeth asks permission to do something (it happens as part of the climax).
As far as I can tell, there are really only two outstanding problems with this film, and both have to do with the ending. The resolution really drags on and on, especially after the exciting climax and the taut pacing of the film up to that point. What's more, it ends on something of a sour note. The original film ended in such a way that the door was wide open for a sequel, yet it could stand on its own just as easily. The remake's ending seems... "confused" about the matter, shall we say. The ending leaves the Lisbeth/Mikael arc dangling, but not necessarily in such a way that it demands a sequel. It's weird.
Oh, and in response to the reports that Fincher and co. changed the ending to the story, I'd like to say that's mostly untrue. Though certain details have certainly changed, the broad strokes of the story remains the same.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is one of those rare remakes that improves upon the original. The film is better-paced (aside from the last few minutes, anyway), better-acted, better-shot, and better-scored. I also find it rather amusing that this movie actually provided a more intellectual and compelling mystery than the film allegedly based on fucking Sherlock Holmes. There's a lot of difficult subject matter (the Nazis and the anal rape, just to name a few), but this movie still has so much to offer. Definitely recommended.