Review: David Fincher's 'Dragon Tattoo' Absorbs with Familiar Tones
by Jeremy Kirk
December 21, 2011
It's hard not to compare David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the original Swedish version of the film from 2009, particularly if, like me, you found the original to be an incredibly compelling film. Both are based on the first of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, though Fincher's seems - I haven't read the novel - more of a straight transfer from page to screen than artistic reinterpretation. And that seems to be the first place where his version of Dragon Tattoo trips up. The characters are there. The story along with the central mystery is firmly present. But the cold nature of this film goes much deeper than the snowy landscapes on which it unfolds.
Fincher, always a director who found purpose in the projects he brings to the screen, seems to be, for the first time in his bustling career since 1995's Se7en, for hire, and this new interpretation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo though impeccably realized, ultimately suffers under the weight of Larsson's original prose and bulky structure.
In Fincher's film, Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist for the Millennium magazine who has just been through a libel accusation that has left him damaged both financially and in terms of his reputation. Because of his current status, he has no choice but to travel to a small island in northern Sweden and take the job of searching for a girl who has been missing for 40 years. Under the guise of writing the biography of the girl's great uncle, the retired industrialist who hired him, Blomkvist must investigate the case as well as the industrialist's family to uncover the truth of what happened to the girl. But, luckily, and as the title permits, he isn't investigating the disappearance alone. Lisbeth Salander (Mara), a very intelligent but very unsociable computer hacker who helped the industrialist choose Blomkvist, comes into the picture. Driven by her own dark past as well as the current darkness that shrouds her character, she helps Blomkvist sort out what really happened on the snowy island four decades before.
The novel-to-script-to-screen journey is always a tricky one. Fincher always seems to find a way to create the perfect level of atmosphere and subtext in his works regardless of their source materials. The atmosphere is certainly present in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He pulls the warmth from the audience with an auteur's ease, supplanting us into the white and chill of every frame of this film. Even the hazy look of the smoke-filled rooms in this film are unbelievably substantial.
But there was something of a warmth to Niels Arden Oplev's original film, an idea that the events taking place are still out of arm's reach from the audience. The same events in Fincher's film are just as coarse, just as uncomfortable, especially the moments in Lisbeth's life before she begins helping Blomkvist. These are moments that shape this character, that reveal to us just how smart and resourceful she can be. To Fincher's credit, he never shies away from any of it, forcing his audience to observe it all. By the time Lisbeth actually does go to the island to help in the mystery, you're thankful the grotesque nature of her life was left behind.
This is nearly halfway into the over two-and-a-half hour film, the first indication that this story is going to take its time revealing itself. Many of the subplots - the industrialist and his nephew, played by Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgård, respectively, partnering with the Millennium magazine, for instance - serve only the purpose in expanding the run time. Clues are pointed out to Blomkvist from the most deus ex machina of places, and you begin to wonder if there really is any use in him investigating at all. Just wait around a while, and someone will come to point you in the right direction.
Luckily, Craig is charismatic as always, but this isn't his show. Rooney Mara steps in as Lisbeth Salander, a character who has been so built up in moviegoers' consciousness that hardly anyone would do her justice. Mara plays the character with strong conviction, diving into the persona physically, emotionally, and mentally but with a witty smirk as if to say she always knows how it's going to play out. Your attention is always locked to her, and it isn't due to her enigmatic appearance. She commands awareness to the point that, as anomalous as she is, you begin to understand her.
Lisbeth is a character with bite, though, and it seems Fincher's choice in how Mara should play her is more of an enigma, a strange creature that we can't quite wrap our minds around. When Lisbeth asks Mikael for permission to kill someone, you're taken aback for a moment, wondering if that's something she would actually do rather than blast through a door guns blazing. That, too, might speak more to what Fincher was going for with her character than the way Mara embodies her. He doesn't want Lisbeth to intimidate the audience as she did when portrayed by Noomi Rapace in the 2009 version. Mara's Lisbeth is something more connected, identifiable, more willing to leave her old life behind for something stabler.
This would explain his film's last 30 minutes, which seems to meander around the two lead characters in such away that you can't help but wonder if another mystery is about to present itself. Like the rest of Fincher's film, the last section is bloated, every scene running a few minutes longer than it should, every montage making its point long after we've go it. Surely it's something lifted straight out of Larsson's novel, but artistic expression should have stepped in where indolent replication took over.
Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is definitely something to marvel at, a beautifully shot film that boasts the best musical score of the year, a dreamlike terrain of muffled hums and off-note bells courtesy of the returning The Social Network composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross that begins to hypnotize you in the same way Lisbeth does. The opening credits, something Fincher has always been a master at, is also something to truly behold, an oily but sexy trip into the mind of its titular protagonist. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a strange trip many have taken before. It may not have been this gritty, jolting, or, most importantly, absorbing, but it was certainly less laborious.
Jeremy's Rating: 6.5 out of 10