How do you create a compelling mystery film when a huge cross-section of the audience is already aware of the story’s major reveal? As of April of last year, Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has sold over 30 million copies and is available in 44 languages (not to mention the Swedish-language adaptation, which made over $100 million internationally). As a result, the twists and turns of David Fincher’s newest directorial effort may not take all audiences by surprise, but thanks to its phenomenal performances and visual style as well as its stark tone, the movie remains engaging and extraordinary in its own way.
The film centers on Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who loses all of his credibility and money after printing what turned out to be a libelous story. Utterly lost, Mikael is approached by a wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) with an interesting opportunity: Vanger wants to know who murdered his niece over 40 years ago and believes that Mikael can solve the crime. On the other side of the story is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an anti-social goth who does investigations for a security firm and is a ward of the state who suffers at the hand of her sadistic legal guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). The stories merge when Mikael hires Lisbeth as his assistant and launches his investigation, discovering that the Vanger family houses some dark and terrifying secrets.
Fincher has never shied from the more uncomfortable or haunting elements of a story, be it the dingy city in Se7en, the nihilistic brawlers in Fight Club, or the realistic murders in Zodiac, and it serves him perfectly in his execution of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The tone is unabashedly twisted and grim, but the content is never gratuitous or alienating. Every scene of brutality, be it rape, torture, or anything else, serves to either inform the audience about the characters or advance the plot. Even the movie's mise en scene, thanks to Jeff Cronenweth's arresting cinematography, work with the hushed, grim tone; the exterior shots showcase Sweden's beautiful snowy landscapes, while interiors are gray and ominously lit, as though to reflect the dark secrets hidden behind closed doors.
Reuniting Fincher with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who wrote the Oscar winning score for The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo demonstrates that the three may quickly become a director/composer powerhouse. The film opens with a stunning title sequence and cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” that will leave movie-goers scooping popcorn off the theater floor with their lower jaw, but when the more subtle and nuanced story begins Reznor and Ross employ an industrial sound with a minimalist approach that blends perfectly with Fincher’s style.
Perhaps aided by her limited exposure prior to starring in the film, the breathtaking Rooney Mara disappears into Lisbeth. Dressed in all black, her hair cut short and eyes hiding a violent past, Mara captures both the subtleties of Lisbeth – from her intense gaze to her physical tension when around strangers – as well as brash and more hardcore moments, such as when she takes revenge against her guardian. There was some concern that the actress wouldn’t be able to hold her own against Noomi Rapace’s turn as the character from the Swedish-language adaptation of the book, but it ends up not being an issue: Mara actually surpasses Rapace’s performance.
Unlike Mara, Daniel Craig doesn’t have the benefit of being a new face, and is, instead, identified almost universally as James Bond. But like his female co-star, Craig is successful in masking himself as Mikael in both the character’s strength and extreme weakness. As the movie isn’t an ensemble piece, most actors outside of the two leads don’t have much time in the limelight, but there isn’t a single miscast performer in the group. Van Wageningen is excellent to a disturbing level, while Plummer plays the tortured Henrik Vanger with aplomb. Even supporting players like Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson are captivating in small but crucial roles.
Though some story details do fall through the cracks, Steve Zaillian’s script and Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s editing keeps the 158 minute film working at an impressive pace and there isn’t a single moment where you’re not fully engaged. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ranks among David Fincher’s best work, and given his resume that’s quite an impressive feat. Some audiences likely won’t react well to the film’s unflinching nature and may dismiss it as a result, but that would be a mistake; the film simply is brutal, brash and brilliant.