From the very beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we know we’re being introduced to a dangerous film. Featuring an opening credit sequence that is breathtaking, bizarre and unnerving, The Girl with… prepares our souls for a slew of sexually depraved and violent acts that will penetrate our senses for the next two and a half hours. Admittedly, outside of a few known plot points, David Fincher’s western adaptation of the Swedish book is my introduction to the stimulating pixie known as Lisbeth Salander. On the whole, I don’t particularly care if this film is a faithful adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s book or if it compares admirably to the original film adaptation. As is the case with any adaptation for me, this version of The Girl with…should be judged on its own merit. Thankfully, I haven’t delved into the book or film incarnation. What I do care about is whether or not Fincher and his crew have crafted a thriller worth the time and effort of moviegoers. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s made a memorable film any more than he has captured a truly memorable performance.
Said performance emanates from Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, a ward of Sweden that has a reputation built on supreme hacking abilities and sexual androgyny. Our introduction to Lisbeth is through her research of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a man who has recently lost a libel case against wealthy businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. Gone is Mikael’s credibility and his sizeable bank account. Upon his loss in the court of law, Mikael is offered the chance to investigate the disappearance of businessman Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) niece. The only catch is that Vanger’s niece disappeared 40 years ago. With a handsome salary on the table, and Vanger promising information that validates his accusations against Wennerström, Mikael hesitantly travels to the frozen tundra known as Hedestad. Upon his arrival, the freezing temperatures feel warm when compared to the icy glances the Vanger family sends his way. Running parallel to Mikael’s intensive research is the liberation of Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth vehemently attempts to free herself from the constraints of the state that watches over her. One issue hindering her freedom is her legal guardian, Holger Palmgren, a tubby brute that isn’t afraid to leverage his power to feed his sexual need.
In a fearless rape scene that pushes Mara to the edge and viewers into repulsion, Palmgren does the unthinkable that at once degrades and liberates Lisbeth. Fincher does a terrific job framing the scene in a manner that avoids exploitation. As a matter of fact, even though the scene plays off the notion that Lisbeth is powerless, it ultimately leads to an empowering moment that is hard to shake. After Lisbeth rises, her inevitable meeting with Mikael comes to fruition when he yearns for a “research assistant” to push his investigation deeper into the Vanger family. With a lead based around lost photos and biblical verses, Lisbeth and Mikael expose a cold case riddled with opportunities. Amidst the twisty discoveries and mysterious violent acts directed at Mikael and Lisbeth (dead cat anyone?), there is a palpable sexual chemistry between the two investigators that gives The Girl with… a seductive edge. The sexual attraction between the two, easily one of the film’s most engaging threads, is wonderfully realized by screenwriter Zaillian and our two leads. But the film tumbles when it focuses on the investigation at hand.
As demonstrated in the fantastic and underrated Zodiac, Fincher has a knack for taking information laden moments and manipulating them in a way that’s exciting and profound. Fincher, with a mass amount of clues and the obsession emanating thereof, makes Zodiac boil over with tension and intrigue, making us actively a part of the pursuit. Further building the power of Zodiac was the perceived time limit that’s set upon journalists and cops. With each moment the Zodiac killer wasn’t identified, another person was at risk of being maimed. Fincher makes this notion real and all too clear. Unfortunately, the investigative drama of Zodiac didn’t find its way to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Instead, the film ends up feeling like a CBS procedural as Mikael meanders through uninteresting evidence with no sense of urgency. Basically, the research has no dramatic thrust. We’re just going through the motions. The only time there is a legitimate urgency to discovering the truth is when we reach the ending. But a boiling ending, especially one that is grimly enchanting and creepily scored to an Enya song, does not make a film. The information at Mikael’s disposal just isn’t enough to fully engage us. Actually, the investigation only gains any kind of traction when Lisbeth’s alluring persona takes over.
Until then, watching Mikael slowly work through evidence just feels tepid. Of course, as alluded to, everything gets better when the enigmatic Lisbeth is given screen time to breathe life into the sordid affair. There was a lot of internet ballyhoo when Mara was cast as Lisbeth, for many felt she wasn’t right for the part. Thankfully these clowns weren’t casting the film; otherwise we would’ve missed out on a fearless performance that will reverberate for years to come. Mara easily slips into the troublesome skin of Lisbeth and welcomes the sexual ambiguity and body art that comes along with it. It’s a towering performance that exposes pieces of Lisbeth’s persona, while maintaining a level of mystery for future endeavors. Once again, it’s hard for me not to marvel at the extremes that Mara daringly accepts. It’s just a shame that outside a collection of stomach churning scenes, a tantalizing performance and the fantastic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feels disengaged. We should feel the intensity and profound scope of an investigation that dates back forty years and airs out a family’s dirty secrets, but we don’t. That is until a cryptic woman comes along and demands our attention. We have no choice but to give it to her.