Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian
David Fincher is effectively incapable of making a bad film. Even his worst film, Alien³, is actually so well made and unique in vision that for all its problems it manages to avoid overall badness. He does seem to have a pattern though: starting with Alien³, every odd-numbered film brings “lesser” Fincher. That has held true right through from The Game and Panic Room, to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and now The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher certainly makes the most of the material he’s given, and while there is plenty to like and even love in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the film never fully transcends its source material to provide something truly special. This is “lesser” Fincher.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the bestselling Swedish novel of the same name and previously adapted into a film in its native Sweden, is straight up pulp mystery. Henrik Vanger, a verywealthy and very elderly businessman, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist for a Swedish magazine, to investigate the murder of his niece forty years earlier. The only possible suspects? The other members of Vanger’s family, of course! They all live together on a somewhat remote island, and they all have dark secrets and eccentricities. Classic stuff.
Eventually, Blomkvist brings on a research assistant in the form of Lisbeth Salander, a goth-attired, mentally disturbed girl with a knack for illegal hacking and a photographic memory. Salander, the “girl with the dragon tattoo” herself, is a fascinating character, and here, played exceptionally well by Rooney Mara, she is both incredibly strong and strong-willed while remaining believably fragile and vulnerable. The chemistry between Mara and Daniel Craig, who plays Blomkvist, is great. There is a fun playfulness between the two of them, and when they are working together to solve the murder the film fires on all cylinders.
Unfortunately the section in which they work together lasts about an hour, give or take ten minutes. That’s about 60 minutes in a 150-minute film. The first act, comprising roughly the first hour of the film, while never boring, is quite unbalanced. A good deal of time is spent on Blomkvist’s legal troubles and his randomly being hired to solve a murder mystery. It’s lot of setup even though details just aren’t that interesting.
The trouble is compounded by the parallel Salander storyline. Without any apparent connection between the two stories other than the need to eventually team her up with Blomkvist, Salander goes through an intense ordeal in which her state-assigned guardian rapes her. The Salander story in this first hour is always compelling, and Fincher does not shy away from making things as horrific as possible, but every time he cuts between Salander and Blomkvist a question is raised. “Why are we watching this?” That is never a good question to be asking and it reveals the underlying structural failure of the film. The mystery, when it’s being worked on, is great pulp fun, but everything else surrounding it just feels unnecessary.
The blame falls partly with the novel, which contains vastly more extraneous material, but given how much of that has been cut out by the film adaptation, why not go all the way? The last 30 minutes of the film suffers the same problem. It’s almost completely extraneous. It’s a long epilogue to a story that needed no epilogue at all, and there are a few moments that even undermine the development of the characters up to that point.
Fincher uses his great eye for imagery and pacing to make those first and third acts pass by without losing the audience, but even he can’t imbue greatness onto such turgid material. All of this is quite disappointing, particularly considering how good that middle section of the film is. And it really is good. Great, even. I’d venture far enough to say that the hour-long second act of the film, from the point where Blomkvist and Salander team up until when they solve the case, is right up there with Fincher’s work on Se7en and Zodiac, though admittedly more shallow.
In one sequence, for instance, Fincher shows the two characters in separate locations doing research and putting some of the final clues together. About ten minutes into this sequence it dawned that there had been almost no meaningful dialogue and mostly it was just a series of shots of pictures, computer screens, printed words and reaction shots. It was also one of the most intense and suspenseful sequences in a film all year. Saying it’s impressive would be an understatement. This is Fincher working at full strength.
There are other scenes and sequences with similar power, even within the less-than-stellar sections of the film, but when the story and script is working, David Fincher manages to truly take things to the next level. This is also the most playful Fincher has been since Zodiac. He clearly recognizes that it’s his duty to try and elevate the material. The opening credits sequence, for instance, is one of the best in ages. It has absolutely nothing to do with the film, though, and it feels tonally jammed into the calmer opening act. It’s really just Fincher deciding to do an awesome music video for Trent Reznor and Karen O’s fantastic cover of The Immigrant Song. He can do it, so why not?
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sets itself as a significantly better version of the story offered in both the novel and the original Swedish film. The craft on display ranges from great to astounding, but that’s to be expected given the director. That said, he never really elevates the film. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a great film buried in the middle of a longer, more problematic film. This was somewhat unavoidable considering the popularity of the novel and the likely demand for faithfulness by fans and the studio. Still, it’s sad to see that Fincher hasn’t made another serial killer drama worthy of standing alongside Se7en and Zodiac. At least his odd/even pattern remains in tact, and hopefully that means whatever film he does next will be spectacular. As it stands, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a decent film, exceedingly well directed, but as a whole it just isn’t great.