The only real issues with David Fincher’s take on Stieg Larsson’s best selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are problems that were in the original story to begin with. It’s overlong, needlessly convoluted in terms of pacing, and the plot is sleazy and dumb as a box of hammers. Having said that, this remounting of the Swedish pop culture juggernaut firmly establishes Fincher as one of the best in the world at what he does. A technical maestro of the highest order, Fincher teams up with two pitch perfect leading actors to make the pulpy material vastly more watchable and entertaining than it probably should be.
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has barely had time to recover from his recent libel suit when he is called away from his family’s Christmas dinner to meet with rich industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). The elder Vanger wishes for Blomkvist to not only construct a written family history and memoir for him, but to also help track down his niece who has been missing and presumed murdered for 40 years.
Stymied not only by the Vanger family’s remote island compound, but also by bureaucratic paperwork and almost undecipherable, incomplete clues, Mikael enlists the help of the mysterious and possibly dangerous Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) – A master hacker and technical wizard with extremely antisocial tendencies. Together the pair uncover a mystery shrouded in the family’s dark past.
While screenwriter Steve Zallian – who was partially responsible for the vastly superior script to this year’s Moneyball – changes almost nothing from the original Swedish film and very little from the book, Fincher creates a new experience out of a project that many naysayers found redundant when it was announced. Following his work on The Social Network, Fincher seems back on the same ground he found himself on with suspense thrillers Seven and Zodiac (even if this isn’t quite as good as those films were).
Fincher doesn’t waste an inch of any frame without giving the audience something compelling to look at. His anal-retentive perfectionism extends to even the more ridiculous and potentially exploitative elements of the story. From snow dunes on islands to the rainy streets of Stockholm, Fincher is recapturing his love of bleak landscapes that has been largely absent since he made Seven.
On purely technical levels, the cinematography on display here is easily among some of the best this year, the editing is disturbingly without flaws, and any awards looking for sound design nominees should stop looking. This is a film that demands to be viewed in the nicest auditorium possible at the local multiplex. Fincher’s use of sound to augment the actions of the characters and their situations would be cheapened if viewed in a standard cinema. The same goes for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ throbbing and inspired score. There’s no mistaking this film as anything other than a big screen experience.
In the end, it would all add up to a really accomplished polishing of a lacklustre story if not for the two leads. Craig and Mara make for the perfect team in scenes both together and apart. Craig portrays Blomkvist differently from his literary origins, by showing a more noticeable vulnerability. Mikael is no longer a hard nosed reporter. He’s a man who has recently been burned, showing no emotion on his face unless he has too. Craig takes everything in and plays Mikael as a man who refuses to place all his cards on the table until he knows what the score is. In one move that Zallian does get right over the original film, Mikael is more like he was in the books when it comes to the women in his life. He is far more respectful and subservient than a swinging cocksure ladies man, and Craig plays almost the anti-Bond here.
As for Mara, she commits to the role of Lisbeth fully, transforming into a person that looks nothing like her in real life. She disappears on screen beneath tattered t-shirts and titular tattoos to create a character that has to be stronger than Mikael for the story to fully work. Granted, as the film begins the audience has to deal with all of her somewhat icky backstory that will become the thrust of the almost inevitable second and third parts to the Millennium trilogy, but she handles these sequences just as well, if not better than her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace. Mara balances standoffish body language with incredibly expressive eyes that belie softer, more intellectual emotions.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a pure genre exercise in every way. Aside from technical credits and some wonderful performances (I didn’t even get to mention Plummer or Stellan Skarsgard as Vanger’s son and go-to business associate), this might not be the awards bait audiences were expecting after Fincher’s film from last year. That doesn’t make anything he does here any less of an achievement, though. He’s made a name for himself as a director of quality films, and this one adequately lives up to that precedent.