So this is what the fuss is all about, huh? OK, that’s not quite true – the fuss is over the original novel of which this is the Hollywood adaptation, there also having been a Swedish TV series and a movie trilogy condensed from it. It seems like everyone has at least bought the novel, if not actually read the thing to the end, so I’m not sure if it’s wise to approach this modern cultural phenomenon for the first time by watching an American remake. But then I’ve never missed a David Fincher movie ever, and when it comes to serial killers he just seems to reach another level entirely (Zodiac (2007) may just be one of the most meticulous and unforgiving procedurals ever filmed), so I wasn’t going to wait until I read the book and did all the background viewing. Coming on the back of the Oscar-certified success of The Social Network (2010), Fincher probably had his pick of projects to work on, but like Christopher Nolan after the breakout hit Memento (2000), he has chosen to remake a Scandinavian thriller. There’s something about the Nordic setting that suggests lots of rattling skeletons inside the closets of apparently ordinary, respectable families, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shares many things with Festen (1998), the Danish masterpiece about the secrets of sexual abuse that are explosively confronted in a patriarchal family.
The film begins with a blistering version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song rearranged by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, played over what looks like an acid trip version of a Bond movie opening, liquefied faces torn apart by disembodied hands in dark and twisted ways. It promises a macabre, muscular and violent movie, but while the overall experience is a powerful and memorable one, Fincher’s direction is surprisingly conventional and linear, and lacks the intricate visual trickery of his previous works. Despite the moody poster which makes him look like a blood-drained masochist, Daniel Craig plays a very decent and entirely normal journalist Mikael Blomkvist, on the trail of a 40 year-old mystery of a missing girl at the behest of an aging tycoon (Christopher Plummer). Told separately for the first half of the running time is the story of Lizbeth Salander, an abused goth and computer genius with a history of violence and worse. While Blomkvist’s investigation is the nominal crux of the narrative, much of the kinetic, bruising power of the film comes from Salander: while we are left to guess at a childhood likely marred by sexual abuse and the exact circumstances under which she has been ruled mentally incapable by the state aren’t made explicit, the rape and violence she suffers onscreen are all too harrowingly real. But Salander can dish out more than she takes, and the way she channels her anger and pain into a quiet yet ferociously determined sense of mission is the most satisfying aspect of the movie. The temptation must have been immense to present her as a fashionable, Trinity-for-the-Twitter-generation super-heroine, unfeasibly kicking ass against the odds and not breaking a sweat, but Mara gives an admirably rounded performance, making sure that Salander is capable of vulnerability as well as strength. A million miles away from her role in The Social Network (although the genuine distaste she showed to Eisenberg’s character in that film was comparably intense), Mara avoids all the cliches and doesn’t resort to cheap tics and quips, so much so that audiences more used to the usually screechy goth rebels in cinema will find Salander slightly off-putting at first: she doesn’t snarl or display cartoon misfit neurosis, and for a good while doesn’t really say anything or show much emotion beyond necessity. When she eventually crosses paths with Blomkvist and is spurred into catalytic action, it makes her all the more affecting. Craig, however, is somewhat miscast as Blomkvist: too lean and well-chiseled, looking almost as lethal as he does in the Bond movies, Craig is one of the only overtly Hollywood touches to be found in the movie and unfortunately negates some of the expertly crafted sense of imperilment as Blomkvist and Salander close in on the mystery. The ending itself is another problem: in striving to tie up all the loose strands the film doesn’t stop where it should, instead lurching into meaningless capering that’s at odds with the slow-burning two hours of dark, taut thriller which went before it.
Highly enjoyable, consummately crafted and showcasing a career-making performance from Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nevertheless a conventional whodunnit at heart, filmed with a surprising lack of directorial imprint by Fincher (except for the opening, of course). It’s certainly not for the triple-A pantheon alongside Zodiac and Seven (1995), nor is it a technical marvel like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But it’s as assured a piece of film-making as you will see this year, and represents yet another quality output from one of America’s premier directors working today.