I might as well admit it -- I've never read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When I sat down to watch director David Fincher's film, itself a remake of a Swedish adaptation, I knew next to nothing about Stieg Larsson's mega-hit novel. Perhaps Law and Order: Scandinavia? With a pierced, neo-goth heroine? And Nazis?
For that ignorance, I'm quite thankful. Dragon Tattoo, without prior conceptions of its characters and their stories, is downright thrilling to watch. (Or, considering the 15 million copies of the novel sold in the United States alone, about as thrilling as Larsson's massive fan base already knows it to be.) Fincher has taken a compelling murder mystery and swaddled it in his standard gloomy cloths; while it's obvious that he's not its father, he's done plenty to leave his mark.
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Dragon Tattoo is two stories drawn to converge, which slowly pull together Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced investigative journalist, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a freelance hacker who really must be seen to be properly understood. Blomkvist, his career in tatters thanks to a libel judgment, is hired by a wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a decades-old family disappearance. Suspects include nearly every member of the Vanger clan, an old-money bloodline filled with all sorts of Nordic meanies, including National Socialists, rapists, alcoholics, and Stellan Skarsgard. At a snail's pace, Blomkvist and Salander are pulled within each other's orbits as the investigation deepens, until the film's midpoint, when their partnership finally begins in earnest.
Fincher's latest foray into feature-length, pulpy crime is many things -- an indictment against violent misogyny, a slow-burning whodunit, a set piece for stellar character acting -- and to its credit, Dragon Tattoo is very good at all of them. Of course, it owes much of that success to Mara. Her Salander is nuanced and contradictory, both a victim of and a dangerous aggressor to those around her, a broken woman who knows it. While her severe black bangs and wispy pale eyebrows do plenty to encourage that dissonance, her eyes turn it into legitimate conflict -- they dart ever suspiciously or harden at a moment's notice, only to flicker with a profound sadness when it's least expected. (The one exception? When Blomkvist first asks her to "catch a killer of women," she immediately perks up.) It's an iconic and affective and absolutely irreplaceable performance -- Mara doesn't just steal scenes, she owns them outright.
The unrecognized star of Dragon Tattoo, though, is the score. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who also scored The Social Network, pull together another spectacularly textured collection of sound under Fincher's watch. By layering acoustics in the midst of electronic mayhem and processing simple harmonies into cold distortions of themselves, their soundtrack sounds vaguely familiar, but unsettlingly imperfect -- it draws you in, amps up the tension, then sucks you dry in scene after scene. Reznor and Ross use these effects to heighten the sense of anxiety, accomplishing in dark ambience and experimental feedback what others struggle to accomplish through much more traditional means. It seems appropriate, then, that the film's first few minutes -- a trippy, oil-soaked title sequence backed by a heavy cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" -- look more like a music video than a movie.
Still, Dragon Tattoo has its flaws. Unlike 2007's Zodiac, where Fincher told a story of dead ends and desperate obsession, there's always another clue lurking in a photograph or meticulously kept record for Blomkvist and Salander. And for some, especially those who dislike longer films, its 158-minute running time may seem tedious -- at times, they wouldn't be wrong. There's an extended epilogue that admirably sets the scene for a sequel, a planned adaptation of Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire, but nonetheless seems off-balance after such a sure-footed plot. It's a well-deserved opportunity to tidy things up, yet an uncharacteristic misfire by screenwriter Steven Zaillian.
Which leads back to one noteworthy scene, where a character, talking to a victim, calls murder "a science of 1,000 details." The same, morbidly enough, describes Fincher's films. With Dragon Tattoo, he gets 999 of them right -- and for that, there's no shame in rounding up.