Though it’s sure to be a blockbuster, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has to be one of the oddest marquee Christmas releases in recent memory. Completely devoid of holiday cheer, this is the rapiest, Naziest movie you’re likely to see this December and a great dark escape from family gatherings if you’re in need of one. It’s a trashy thriller, but with director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, and er The Social Network) calling the shots, at least it’s arty trash.
There are flaws abound in the movie like awkward pacing, clunky exposition, and an overabundance of characters. However, these problems can all be attributed to the overrated and ludicrously successful source material. I was hoping that Fincher might try to tame the beast by shortening things up and tying off loose ends to spare North American audiences the pain of sitting through the abysmal sequels. That was asking too much though. This is a big bucks making franchise in the studio’s eyes and with millions of fans of the books out there, they were in no rush to fix what was already selling. Though it feels like there’s a brilliantly twisted genre movie trapped inside The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that could have been dug out with some tweaking, what Fincher and co. ended up with is at least a very entertaining and lurid little thriller, even if it goes on for at least half an hour too long.
If you haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s worldwide bestseller or caught the original Swedish adaptation, don’t worry you haven’t missed much and the Americanization is at least an improvement on all the previous incarnations. The film stars Daniel Craig as a renegade journalist who edits the political magazine Millenium and opens the film trapped in a sticky libel lawsuit for one of his recent articles. He steps down from the magazine while trying to clear his name, but in the meantime takes a job for a reclusive millionaire played by Christopher Plummer who promises to clear Craig’s name for a little private sleuthing. Plummer lives on an isolated island with his estranged family of ex-Nazis and hires Craig to try and track down the presumed killer of his long lost great-niece who disappeared several decades ago. At the same, time we’re introduced to Rooney Mara’s endlessly pierced n’ tattooed (hence the title) goth hacker, a troubled computer genius who has spent years in and out of hospitals for her often violent behavior. She’s currently dealing with a rapist social worker when Craig gets in contact with her after learning it was her research that got him the detective gig. Soon they team up to solve the crime and discover a whole lot of rape, murder, torture, and of course love for each other along the way.
It’s all fairly straightforward potboiler whodunit stuff with a little extra extreme violence and a fetish fair heroine. There’s nothing particularly deep about the material and it has no pretence of being an artistic statement. After the rather brilliant serial killer deconstruction picture Zodiac, it even feels like a step backwards for director David Fincher. However, let’s be honest, an American Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movie was going to be made no matter what and no filmmaker kicking around Hollywood is more suited to the material than Fincher. While he may be slumming it with this thriller after making a few Oscar-contenders, Fincher dips back into B-movie stylistics with a vengeance. From one of his patented surrealistic music video opening credits sequences (this time to a techno remix of “Immigrant Song” for some reason) on, Fincher busts out his old bag of dark-hued filmmaking tricks and uses them all. Considering that the story is filled with tangents that go nowhere and half-finished ideas to be picked up in later chapters, he does an impressive job simply taming the unwieldy story and maintaining a sense of forward momentum even when the narrative frequently threatens to spiral out of control. If nothing else, this is one of the most stylish films of the year with beautifully crisp cinematography composed of shadows and deep blacks, all backed by a brooding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (both of whom nabbed an Oscar last year for their work on Fincher’s The Social Network).
The director also gets uniformly strong performances out of his actors. The tattooed hacker Lisbeth is an intriguing character and the main reason for the success of the books. Given that Noomi Repace was fantastic in the role in the Swedish adaptations and the best part of those films, replacing was never going to be an easy task. Yet, somehow Rooney Mara makes the role her own, equal parts chilly, mysterious, sexy, and complex. The character is kind of like a psychotic femme fatale with a moral center and Mara creates quite an evocative heroine and wears her tight leather ensembles with ease. Daniel Craig, who can often seem a little too cold and distant in his roles, is perfectly cast here as a driven journalist in over his head. Christopher Plummer casts a striking presence as the man determined to uncover a family mystery, chunky Euro character actor Yorick van Wagenlingen is wonderfully creepy as Rooney rapist/social worker, and the actor who plays the villain (whose name I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers) proves to be a terrifyingly clinical serial killer.
So, considering the fact that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a beautifully directed thriller with a cast that won’t quit, why not four stars? Well, the story ultimately isn’t that interesting. Sure, it pushes a lot of poignant and shocking buttons, but in the end it’s completely generic. If you can’t guess the killer’s identity within the first hour, you aren’t trying and the story needlessly goes on for a half an hour after the murder is solved without even properly wrapping things up (there are two more movies to be made in this would-be franchise, less we forget). All the talent involved certainly helps elevate the material as high as it can go, but it never proves to be more than a B-movie with A-level production values. There’s nothing wrong with that and certainly this is a great piece of dirty entertainment, it’s just nothing special and it could have been. A rewrite to smooth out the story and contain the narrative in one film to avoid the terrible sequels could have made this an excellent thriller. But, that also would have cut down on the profits and this is a commercial vehicle above all else. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is definitely an edgy example of mainstream entertainment, but still bears all of the trappings of steam-lined mainstream entertainment nonetheless. So, see it, enjoy it, but do not under any circumstances expect a masterpiece.