An hour after the credits rolled on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my palms were still sweating. In characteristic David Fincher fashion, the film is a slow burn, very intentionally taking time to unfurl its mystery. Instead of white-knuckling your way through a stylized whodunit, Tattoo envelops you in its expertly crafted narrative until inevitable choice moments of tension catch you unaware.
This is, of course, a staple Fincher technique, as is the film’s desaturated cinematography, industrial set pieces and frigid — literally and figuratively — locations. All elements combined, the director successfully manages to transform a story I previously found dull and meandering into something engrossing and strangely beautiful.
I’ve admittedly not been able to get through the original Stieg Larsson novel (my aforementioned criticism refers to the 2009 Swedish film adaptation of the same name). I viewed the movie with an avid lover of Larsson’s trilogy, and I recall her first complaint being that Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander wasn’t quite right — not small or fragile enough, too athletic in build and lacking the vulnerable undercurrent bubbling beneath her harsh exterior. And Rapace was, for me, the best part of that first film (even with this latest adaptation, it’s pretty clear that Fincher is superior to the content on every level, but he wields the plots points so deftly that he actually lends insight to them).
Based solely on my friend’s description of Lisbeth, it seems to me that Rooney Mara’s Salander meets all the criteria, and then some. She’s really quite splendid, all bird-like build and steely reserve. She keeps her conversation short and emotionless, but when her resolve flounders, the eyes say it all. Mara also holds her own against Daniel Craig, who plays Mikael Blomkvist, even managing to overpower him at times. From light moments involving Lisbeth’s frustration at Blomkvist’s Luddite ways, to straightforward physical relations, the two navigate the pairing (and an age gap that could otherwise take on Crazy Heart-esque proportions of weirdness) with expert fluidity.
The story follows Swedish journalist Blomkvist, recently under attack for allegedly libeling billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström (played by Ulf Friberg), who’s approached by businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) with a proposition: Investigate the 40-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of his beloved niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by a member of his family — many of whom conveniently reside on the same island with him. Blomkvist accepts and relocates to a shabby guest house on the remote island containing the Vanger estate.
We’re also introduced to Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant pierced, tattooed, leather-clad, motorcycle-riding hacker, as she’s commissioned to perform a background check on Blomkvist for Vanger. She lives a solitary life perched in front of a computer screen, monitoring (we soon find out she’s a ward of the state, on probation for mental instability, violent behavior and drug abuse). When her guardian falls ill after a stroke, she’s transferred to the jurisdiction of sadistic Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who sexually assaults her in exchange for access to her bank account. Lisbeth and Mikael’s paths eventually intersect as they both comr closer to the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance, tying in the related grisly deaths of other women around the same period.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that Larsson named his gothed-out main character Lisbeth. It’s so dainty, a seemingly old-timey mashup of a Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott character. Considering the thematic content of the film, though — the myriad repercussions (and products) of violence against women — it makes sense. Most notably in Fincher’s adaptation, we’re invited into Salander’s psyche, able to understand her motives to “catch a killer of women,” and struck by her fragility. Without venturing too far into feminist territory, she admittedly does feel like a modern-day heroine, in the same vein as an Austen, Bronte or Alcott protagonist.
Fincher’s exploration of Salander’s physicality is also striking, and includes some of the most realistic images of computer hacking depicted in film to date — clearly The Social Network was his training ground — an introduction to her stealthiness and strength with an incredible battle with a would-be thief on a subway escalator, and clashing images of her naked body (at times of her own will, at times very much not). And her costumes, specifically a ragged t-shirt that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck,” pick up where dialogue fails. (I wonder if H&M will adapt that for its Salander-inspired clothing line?)
Fresh off their Oscar win for The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross return to collaborate with Fincher on the film’s score, and the result is no less enthralling. Fincher sets choice scenes to the throbbing synth and electronic beats, then juxtaposes others using only ambient sound or silence. The result is something of an audience surrogate, with music (or the lack thereof) leading you in the necessary direction.
The only criticism that comes to the forefront, for me, is the film’s opening credits. Reminiscent of Fight Club‘s stylized journey through the inner body, Tattoo‘s sequence involves jet-black oil soaking the forms of our two protagonists, computer parts and other symbolic images from the film. It’s almost James Bond-like in its scope and execution — seemingly tongue-in-cheek, considering Craig’s involvement — and it sets a tone that immediately proves out of place. Even Karen O’s brilliant cover of “Immigrant Song” can’t rescue it; it feels made for a different movie.
That minor lament aside, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the thinking man’s film of the season, a confident and complex declaration of the mind’s plights, and a cinematic exploration into its darkest recesses.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens today nationwide.
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