David Fincher is back in fine form with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a highly charged suspense film about an investigation of a decades-old murder in an upper-crust family in Sweden that is solved by some rather unusual methods. Despite some less than stellar material to work with, Fincher provides enough style and energy to make this a very satisfying work that keeps you involved in guessing what the film’s assorted characters will do next.
Based on the eponymous novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson which was published in 2005, after his death at the age of 50. Dragon Tattoo was the first of Larsson’s so-called “Millennium Trilogy” to be published; each becoming a best-seller in Europe and the Unitd States. The books were about crimes that were scrutinized by two main characters: investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and a female researcher (in reality, an expert computer hacker) in her 20s named Lisbeth Salander.
As the film opens, Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has been found guilty of libel against a successful businessman and has been ordered to pay damages of several hundred thousand kronor. Blomkvist, who wrote these articles for an small independent magazine, now decides to leave the publication, much to the chagrin of his editor – and lover – Erika Berger (Robin Wright).
Blomkvist has accepted the challenge set forth by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired CEO of Vanger Industries, who wants Blomkvist to solve the mystery of how his great-niece Harriet was murdered some 40 years ago. Vanger seeks out Blomkvist’s help thanks to a report filed by Salander (Rooney Mara).
As Blomkvist’s investigation unfolds, we learn of the other members of the Vanger family; Henrik tells Blomkvist of the jealousy and hate among the various brothers, sisters and cousins and he is certain that someone in the family committed the murder.
Fincher’s direction is smooth and smart during the early sections of this film, as Blomkvist starts to work on this case, combining traditional methods (index cards and old photos) along with the modern technology of his laptop computer.
While he assembles evidence, Salander is trying to get her life together. Judged as legally incompetent, she has been assigned a new legal guardian who clearly has little more interest in her than sexual needs. Some of the most unsettling images of this film are of these two characters trying to take the upper hand against the other; his actions are quite direct and selfish, while she fights back in a most brutal and forceful manner.
Soon afterwards, Salander is recommended to Blomkvist to aide him in his research. At first, he is turned off by her sluggish, almost bitter attitude in life, as well as the fact that she hacked into his computer to assemble her report on him to Vanger’s attorney. But soon, the two of them put aside their differences in order to solve the case. Blomkvist lets his guard down and starts to trust her, while Salander, sensing the professionalism, passion and humanity of Blomkvist, starts to become a bit less anti-social in her behavior.
The story itself only occasionally rises above pulp fiction, as all sort of dark secrets about the Vanger family are introduced, including membership in the Nazi party for some of the men, as well as a sick fascination with torture and murder. While this could have made for a cheap sensationalistic film, Fincher provides a raw energy and methodology that lifts this film above an ordinary thriller. Aiding him in this is screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who provides a smart and nicely structured screenplay; this following his Oscar-winning text for Fincher’s The Social Network from 2010.
The film’s most noticeable flaw is the coda, which despite it being necessary to tie up some loose ends, is a bit anticlimactic, espcially after the riveting scene where Salander races against time to save Blomquist’s life. This chilling scene is superbly directed by Fincher, especially as it’s the summation of everything we’ve learned about the investigation. So the final pieces of the puzzle don’t come off as that interesting (except for the film’s last shot) after we learn the identity of the killer.
It’s the yin and yang of these two main characters that are at the core of this film’s success, and while Craig gives a professional, straight-ahead performance, it’s Mara’s striking turn as Lisbeth that keeps things intriguing far beyond some of the predictable plot twists. Lisbeth is one of the most unique female characters to grace the screen (though grace may hardly be the correct terminology here). She’s mad at the world for reasons unexplained (alhough hints were given in the 2009 Swedish version of this same story) and seems to find her only delight in life when she is hacking emails of others; clearly one must assume that she hates herself and must live vicariously through other’s lives. She has sex with men and women, though she probably doesn’t care much for long-term relationships, although her encounter with Blomkvist may change that.
While Fincher provides the raw energy this film requires, it is the work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth that truly sells this piece. Watching this, you can feel the chill in the air, as Cronenweth beautifully captures the grays and deep blues of the Swedish countryside in winter. He also provides mesmerizing shadows of the characters, especially the Vangers, as they weave their evil doings. Cronenweth did an excellent job in terms of lighting on The Social Network, but he exceeds himself with his work on this film. We are immersed in the look and gloomy tones of this world from the first frame, thanks largely to Cronenweth’s masterful photography. There have been many beautifully photographed films this year, so the odds may be against him, but I believe Cronenweth deserves an Oscar nomination for this work.
At the end of the day, I prefer Zodiac (2007) as a superior film from Fincher, as it is a more subtle and rewarding look at the effects of murder. Clearly Dragon Tattoo needed a different story telling approach and the director is more than up to the task. It may not be an oustanding film, but this effort from Fincher can stand quite tall on its own and can be celebrated for its quirks, something that can be said for much of the director’s work as a whole.
Also of note: Ken’s review of 2009 Swedish film.