When I read the novel sometime last year, the greatest mystery inherent in Steig Larsson's bestselling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was how it managed to become so wildly popular. Here was a very basic cut-and-dry detective story overrun with lifeless prose, rambling paragraphs, and moments of surprisingly bland sexualized violence. I'd never read a rape scene so clinical or a revenge enacted with such restrained language, and yet, somehow what I found dull to the point of impenetrable was resonating with millions. The reason, it's safe to say, lies not with the quality of the writing (apologies to the deceased Larsson, but, it's terrible), but with the ferocious, seductive draw of its enigmatic heroine. Lisbeth Salander is a character deserving of a prominent place in the pop culture canon. She's a slacker goth mongoose with a mercurial temper and a frighteningly keen intellect who serves as the furious, vengeful feminist id for readers and audiences the world over. The argument can be made, perhaps, that she serves as a stand-in for all women in a story that has as its prominent subject matter the misogynistic brutalization of the female sex at the hands of sadistic, power-hungry men. Lisbeth has been abused, she is damaged, she can be hurt, but she has opted to take control of her own person and rage against expectations. She is, somehow, what a great many women seem to secretly admire. I've met teen girls, real housewives, and elderly women who love her unconditionally; piercings, tattoos,bisexuality, and androgyny withstanding. I can't say I disagree. While Larsson's story is a jumbled bit of prose, he lucked out with Lisbeth. Too bad she doesn't have a stronger piece of work to call home.
David Fincher's take on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is likely the third outing with Lisbeth for most of us, and what's most at stake is not only his treatment of the title character, but also whether or not he's able to glean something out of material that seems so culturally overdone already. The answer to the second question is that he both does and does not. In some ways, the bulk of what he's achieved does come down to Lisbeth herself. While I was among the many who expressed concerns regarding the over-objectified nature of some of the initial advertising (was it appropriate to appeal to viewers with a topless Rooney Mara?), it became immediately clear that Fincher intended to treat Lisbeth as the proper subject, and understood her as an action hero. The title sequence was a jolt of electrified, oil-slicked style that captured so much of the stylistic sensibility of a James Bond opener I had to sit back and wonder if I'd walked into the wrong Daniel Craig film. It was a visual cue if ever I'd seen one, and for the remainder of the run time I couldn't escape the sense that this was all just the set-up for what could become a franchise much longer than the three book arc. As Lisbeth, Rooney Mara cuts an intriguing silhouette. With her bangs cropped in a straight line too high on her forehead, her eyebrows bleached to obscurity, and her body scrawny as a thirteen year old, she reads as closer to the cypher Larsson likely had in mind. Mara has an expression that reads naturally somewhere between disinterest and vulnerability. Her eyes are wide, but occasionally fierce, and she conveys an effortless sense of an angry anxiety lurking just beneath an otherwise placid surface. This restless, nervous energy permeates the scenes in which Mara is present. When she's on screen, she dominates. Fincher allows her to do so, as does Craig, and we understand that this is her story and the parts that don't yet belong to her soon will.
Still, while Mara makes for an excellent variation on the Salander character quite different from the one originated by Noomi Rapace, her power is in some ways dampered by Fincher's adherence to the story's twisting labyrinth. Mara seems comfortable in Salander's skin, but Rapace brought a fury to the role that made for more explosive entertainment. This Dragon Tattoo telling is about as cold as its icy setting. One of the many problems with Larsson's story is that it's fractured in a great many directions, and succumbs to delusions of grandeur it cannot follow through on. For those who have not experienced the story before, you may be surprised to find that Lisbeth Salander makes for a relatively slim portion of the groundwork. We do not learn much about her, in this first installment, but she comes in like a hurricane. The actual mystery is centered around a dying business tycoon named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), whose family of Nazis, drunks, and degenerates may also hold a murderer. Vanger is keenly interested in closing the case of what happened to a beloved teenage niece who mysteriously disappeared in the 1960's. He suspects his relatives and brings in Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a fallen journalist, to covertly investigate as he pretends to pen Henrik's memoirs. The novel and the Swedish film spend more time with the Vanger clan, perhaps too much, but Fincher's somehow seems to devote too little. It's difficult to say, at this point, whether my judgment is overly clouded by familiarity, but everything in Fincher's thriller reads as menacing. In his half-light, all potential villains immediately show their true colors, a fact not helped by the uneven splicing of crucial relationships in spite of the near three hour run time. We don't get time enough to spend with the usual suspects, and the finger pointing is so easy to do that by the time we get to an expository rundown of "ah yes, you found me out" the mystery feels too shallow.
This is not a sensation I recall experiencing with the Swedish film, which surprised me with its brutality and quick turns. At the time, I recall feeling that it was a custom fit for Fincher, material that he's be able to expound upon and sketch in deeper, more shocking gashes. While the film possesses the same shadowed style and modern noir touches that gave works like Se7en, Zodiac, and The Social Network their menacing hyper-coolness, there's something distant about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Something is missing here. The story feels almost more fractured, though stylistically it's operating at a level far above what we've seen before. Everything here looks great, sounds great, and is handled competently. Yet, while the film is entertaining, it does not reach the heights Fincher is capable of. Ultimately, Dragon Tattoo doesn't possess the rage and adrenaline that coursed through the Swedish version, and Fincher makes some questionable alterations to the story's conclusion (which even I will admit are problematic and uninteresting) which too quickly shut off one plot thread in favor of beginning another. Still, the groundwork is present, and the film at least equals its Swedish counterpart. I expect that if Fincher continues to helm the trilogy it will grow stronger where the originals became weaker, and hope that we see Lisbeth's return soon.