David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much a perfect addition to the American filmmaker’s already illustrious career and at the very same time a refreshing departure. It’s a film of narrative and technical ambition, which is right down Fincher’s alley, but it’s also a film in which the characters are far more important than the plot.
The internet has fueled much pre-release debate on whether or not this film could be better than the Swedish original, which was an international hit, or that such an effort was necessary. I would have been skeptical, too, had Fincher not been the one behind the camera. While this version is similar in some respects, it’s a wholly original vision and take on Steig Larsson’s bestselling novel.
The film centers on Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist who has just been accused of libel by a crooked billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Right after having to leave the magazine he works for Blomkvist is invited to the lavish, family-owned island of Henrik Vanger who wants him to help him solve the 40-year old mystery involving the murder of his niece, Harriet. Through the years of investigating Henrik has concluded that the killer was someone in his family and wants Blomkvist to find out who it is. Vanger agrees to pay well and also give Blomkvist information about Wennerstrom that would help salvage the writer’s career. Blomkvist agrees to take on the near impossible task.
During this time we also follow the story of Lisbeth Salander, a young researcher for a security company who was the investigator that compiled a background check on Blomkvist for Vanger. She is in custody of the state after her guardian suffered a stroke. Her finances are then controlled by lawyer Nils Bjurman. He uses this advantageous position to sexual abuse Salander multiple times. During one of their visits, though, Salander tapes Bjurman’s rape and blackmails him to give her money and give great reports about her behavior to the state.
One of the great elements of the book and film is that we get to know these two characters in their own elements. We come to identify and like both in very different ways and, knowing it’s only a matter of time before their tales converge, wait with anticipation for their meeting. The film engineers an extreme wanting in the audience for their first meeting to occur. And when Blomkvist seeks help with the case and asks about Salander, it delivers. And from their the story takes off because we have no need for exposition. We’ve already grown with these characters and understand them.
The great structure of the story is very much the work of Larsson’s source material, but Zaillian weaves it together quite nicely. At 158 minutes the film should seem long, but it flies by mainly because of this structure. It is a murder mystery, sure, but it’s also a film that, at its heart, is about the relationship of these two characters.
Daniel Craig is great as Blomkvist, but it’s Rooney Mara, and her performance as Lisbeth, who steal the show. Her take is much more vulnerable and emotional than Noomi Rapace’s in the Swedish version. During the first half of the film, she is, above all things, human; something that was lacking with Rapace. Her Lisbeth was a superhero of sorts from the start. Mara instead injects a lot of disappointment, whether its from her guardian’s stroke or Blomkvist’s lack of reciprocal feelings. Even in a role that demands a stand-out, no-holds-barred, look-at-me aspect it’s the nuances and subtleties of Mara that really make it the best female performance I’ve seen this year.
Now we’re back to Fincher, who is so assured in his filmmaking here. From the brilliantly designed opening credits to the cold, heartbreaking final scene he shows the control, precision, and attention that can only be reserved for the very best behind the camera. Working from a great script by Zaillian doesn’t hurt, but Fincher makes every scene, every shot, every look count. He is truly a master of his craft. And when you want to adapt something as bold and ambitious as Larsson’s book, you shouldn’t have it any other way.
Rating: **** (out of ****)