2010 was a major year in the career of David Fincher, who finally cashed in his new found post-Zodiac critical cred and scored major plaudits for his Mark Zuckerberg film The Social Network. That film seemed to win every critics’ award imaginable, topped many top ten lists, and received eight Oscar nominations. All the while, Fincher was a no show for a lot of promotional events and even some award shows because he was in Sweden getting ready to make his next film, an adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” To me this assignment seemed like a bit of a step down. I’d seen the Sweedish adaptation of the Swedish adaptation of the book and I wasn’t overly impressed with it. The film itself was mostly functional, so most the blame seemed to fall on the source material, which as far as I could surmise seemed like little more than a beach read with aspirations beyond its station that it never executed on. Fortunately, David Fincher has never been known to make films that are merely “functional,” so I was interesting to see what he’d do with the material.
Like the book and Swedish adaptation before it, the film follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced investigative journalist who has just been convicted of libel after he ran a story about a prominent business man named Hans-Erik Wennerström (Nils Bjurman) which he could not substantiate later. Sitting at a low point in his professional life Blomkvist accepts a job from an old man named Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet, who vanished from their Island estate in 1966. Meanwhile, the hacker which Vanger hired to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who is the titular twenty three year old who dresses in punk regalia, goes through a setback in life when her long time state guardian Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson) has a stroke and is replaced by the much less sympathetic and generous Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). Bjurman proves to be a nightmare for Salander, but she is more than capable of handling herself and is eventually able to squirm out from under his thumb, this experiences make her more than willing to join with Blomkvist when he finds her and asks for her help in his investigation, which seems to be connected with a series of murders across Sweden.
It’s not too hard to see what would lead Fincher would be willing to take this assignment, after all it does seem like the running theme of his career has been to make movies that have very large budgets but which aren’t action movies or the usual blockbuster fare. In the past he’s accepted assignments like The Game, Panic Room and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which maybe don’t fit perfectly in his sensibilities but which allow him to flex his genre muscles while staying in Hollywood’s good graces. The thing is, he has a unique ability to elevate these projects significantly in spite of their sometimes questionable scripts. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in particular was a study in how much his perfectionism and his ability to create memorable visuals could elevate some really clichéd material into something that was much greater than it deserved to be. He does the same here too, this movie covers almost the exact same material as the Swedish adaptation of this novel, yet it feels like a vast improvement simply because of that Fincher touch. The two films, compared side by side, are like a study in the power of an auteur’s stamp.
As is always the case with Fincher’s films, the widescreen cinematography is slick and glossy, and the camera movements are smooth but bold. The editing is excellent, giving this relatively long story a brisk pace, but the film doesn’t feel like it’s in too much of a hurry. A big part of the film’s appeal is that it takes its time and lays out the many plot twists in a very efficient and understandable manner. Fincher has again hired the Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor to compose the score, only a year after he won an Oscar for his score to The Social Network. The use of dark industrial rock music as a film score feels less daring when tied to a film about a punk-hacker than it did in a film about Harvard educated website designers, but his music here is still awesome and highly appropriate. This all gives the film a very cool tone, one that will be familiar to those who know Fincher’s previous films and it works very well with this material. While the Swedish version at times felt a lot like a television crime procedural (CSI: Stockholm?), but this version feels decisively like a meticulously crafted film.
One of the strongest aspect’s of the Swedish film was Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth Salander, but Rooney Mara is able to at least equal her accomplishment. Mara perfectly captures Salander’s surliness and her confidence in her own abilities and has an absolute toughness to her core. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actress who traded words with Mark Zuckerberg in the opening scene of The Social Network, and that’s a testament to just how much she inhabits this role. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Fincher showing incredible restraint in his refusal to avoid the casting huge stars in any of the roles. The biggest star in the whole film is probably Daniel Craig, who isn’t wildly famous outside of his James Bond role, and he does an admirable job playing Blomkvist, though I doubt it will be as widely hailed as Mara’s work if only because the role is a lot less showy. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the whole cast is that every one of them is able to speak in a slight, though not distractingly pronounced, Scandinavian accent. Ideally it would have been cool if Fincher could have been given $100 million dollars to make a film in Swedish, but as far as English language films set in foreign countries this was really well done, it’s certainly preferable to the Hugo approach of giving everyone a British accent regardless of the country it’s set in.
Of course given that this is a faithful adaptation of the novel, it still has some of the nagging issues that I had with the Swedish film which are rooted in the way Stieg Larsson decided to tell this story. Namely I feel like there are two extended sub-plots that stick out like sore thumbs and distract from the central mystery that the film should be focusing on. The first is an extended war of will between Salander and her new state guardian, who turns out to be a disgusting rapist. Fincher has clearly put a lot of effort into staging these scenes tastefully and in many ways they are some of the best filmed scenes in the movie, but they will be highly disturbing to many audiences, and worse than that they do not really seem to fit in with the story. Larsen has clearly included this rape/revenge sub-plot in order to make some sort of feminist statement, but I don’t think it really amounts to much more than “rape is bad,” and it does little for the plot except to provide the character with motivation to assist with Blomkvist’s investigation. To me that is not enough of a reason to fill the first act of the film with a tangent that seems to have little to do with the main plot.
I also feel that, like the Swedish film (and the novel I suppose), that the film is marred by a protracted ending which feels anticlimactic in a number of ways. I won’t go into detail about this but the film seems to go on for a good twenty minutes after the central mystery has been solved for seemingly no reason other than to set up a sequel. At the very least Fincher improves upon the Swedish version by omitting a ridiculous scene set in Australia, but the damage is still done and the moment he does choose to end on isn’t really a natural stopping point either. It’s odd that David Fincher seems to have been having so much trouble ending his films recently. His excellent 2007 film Zodiac was also marred with a poor third act, while I thought The Social Network had the opposite problem of ending far too abruptly. To some extent this isn’t Fincher’s fault, it was Larsson who felt the need to add protracted bookends to his mystery and had Fincher cut them off he would have invoked the wrath of the book’s fans, but it still didn’t work for me.
At the end of the day this movie probably will go down as minor-Fincher. It lacks the audacity of Fight Club, it probably won’t have the influence of Seven, it isn’t an exciting evolution of style like Zodiac was and it doesn’t capture the zeitgeist like The Social Network did, but it’s also a lot more substantial than something like Panic Room or The Game. If Fincher is going to get stuck doing a branded trilogy in order to pay the bills this is certainly the right one to do it with, and I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job than he has. Those simply looking for a good thriller or mystery probably will leave satisfied and fans of the book will probably like what they see as well. I do wish that Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian had been allowed to cut some of the fat from the story, but otherwise I like what he’s done here.
***1/2 out of Four