BUSAN, South Korea — When one considers American director David Fincher’s body of work, it seems rather obvious that his somewhat morbid style of filmmaking would suit the material of Stieg Larsson’s novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. After all, we are talking about the man who brought us films like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Game (which is criminally underrated, in my view). With Zodiac and The Social Network being his finest efforts to date, I find it pleasantly surprising that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ranks amongst those plateau-reaching gems. While not quite as effortlessly intricate as Zodiac, nor as concise and consistently entertaining as The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo delivers a visceral wallop that makes it Fincher’s most mature film to date.
Fans of the source material will likely feel right at home with Fincher’s film version. I have not seen the 2009 Swedish film, but I hear it’s as good for slightly different reasons. If you’ve already absorbed the plot through the novel, or the 2009 film (or both), then there may not be many surprises in store. If, however, you’re as new to the story as I was, then you will find that screenwriter Steve Zaillian is not interested in spoon-feeding the audience. The richly layered plot will most certainly keep you on your toes, and Fincher’s aesthetic appeal is imbued with dark and moody lighting that serves to heighten the backdrop of Sweden’s harsh, wintry conditions.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows two characters, Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara) and Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig), along individual narrative paths, running parallel until their inevitable meeting. Mikael, a disgraced journalist who has been found guilty of libel, is asked to write a biography for the head of the wealthy, reclusive Vanger family. He is also asked to unravel the mystery of Harriet Vanger, the beloved niece who went missing more than 40 years ago. In an attempt to escape from the demons haunting him in Stockholm, Mikael agrees to write the biography, and piece together the mystery, while residing on a tiny island in northern Sweden, which is owned by the Vangers.
Thrown into the mix is Lisbeth, an anti-social punk prodigy whose computer hacking abilities are a grand display of pure, unadulterated genius. Lisbeth is struggling with some very disturbing demons of her own, not the least of which includes being raped at the hands of her legal guardian/financial overseer. Together, Lisbeth and Mikael form an incomparable crack investigative team, embarking on a journey to discover the truth behind the Vanger family mystery, while simultaneously working with their own personal inner struggles.
Daniel Craig is very comfortable in the role of Mikael Blomkvist, but it’s Rooney Mara who stands front and center as the broken, yet undeterred Lisbeth Salander. Mara delivers a gut-punch with her staggering portrayal of Lisbeth as the tragic heroine who is rejected by the world, filled with conviction, malice and angst, damaged, yet self-assured in her anti-social nature. Lisbeth is a character who takes what she needs, and knows exactly how to get at it.
It’s crucial to note that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an R-rated film, and has earned every bit of that rating. This dark, twisted, and deeply disturbing piece of cynical filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. The brilliant opening credit sequence is a pronouncement of the raw and in-your-face subject matter, with Trent Reznor and Karen O’s awesome rendition of “The Immigrant Song” blaring loudly over the tar-drenched, abstract imagery. It’s a terrific way to announce the film’s “F@#& the World” theme, and surely one of the best opening title sequences I’ve seen in some time.
Much like the aforementioned masterpiece Zodiac, Fincher’s latest is a densely plotted crime-thriller with an abundance of detail and names to take note of, so it’s forgivable if one gets lost in the shuffle. There are times when the plot runs the risk of becoming a bit convoluted, though luckily the film delivers scenes of immense power at all of the right moments, drawing you up out of the confusion. The makings of a formulaic story are there, but Steve Zaillian’s screenplay works hard to fight conventions; if you are completely new to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then I have no doubt this film will keep you guessing until the very end.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a film that is less concerned with the “what” and the “how” aspects of a mystery, and more concerned with the “who”. It is mostly about the inner workings of individuals who are all very broken, some of them to the point of being deeply disturbed. As a character study it works extremely well, and on that note has more in common with David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ than it does with his other two crime-thrillers Se7en and Zodiac. Like The Social Network, this films energy and entertainment value can be derived from the characters themselves, Mikael and Lisbeth, and I found myself completely captivated by their presence. I suspect The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will play better on repeat viewings, but for now it sits comfortably as my third favorite film from Fincher, and one of the better offerings from 2011.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
2011, directed by David Fincher