That David Fincher came to direct 2011's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is one of those filmic self fulfilling prophecies. The auteur behind such dark offerings as SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, and ZODIAC is as suited to this material as any artist could possibly be. Those earlier films were so saturated in Fincher's lucidly bleak visions that I wonder if they in part influenced the author of Tattoo and its sequels, Stieg Larsson.
You're likely aware that the wildly popular Tattoo was already filmed in 2009 in Sweden (the setting of this story) by director Niels Arden Oplev to great acclaim. Cue the chorus of disapproval when it was announced Hollywood would have its turn with it. I've seen many botched American remakes of foreign classics and neo alike (POINT OF NO RETURN comes to mind). This time, Fincher and company have legions of fans of the book and the original film adaptation frothing at the mouth. No adaptation or remake could possibly be satisfactory.
I came into THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO without having read any of the trilogy or seeing the original film adaptation. In other words, I'm part of the targeted demographic. I saw the film not because the storyline tantalized me - it sounded like any old fashioned whodunnit, though adorned with 21st century gadgetry and a punk attitude - but because I am a fan of Fincher, and knew this ride would be worth taking.
A long, harsh ride it is. You know from the opening titles, a discordant orgy of images of black ooze pouring horizontally and vertically all over a woman's body, set to Trent Reznor's equally dissonant re-imagining of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", that Fincher is out to set a macabre and uncomfortable stage. In a weird bit of coincidence, this sequence is in some ways reminsicent of those silhouetted slender women moving about in the openings of James Bond movies. Daniel Craig, who plays Mikael Blomquist, the leading role, is the current 007.
Blomquist is a writer/reporter for a Swedish magazine of which he is part owner (along with Erika, played by an underused Robin Wright) who is charged with libel after his printed damnation of a shady local businessman. Disgraced and broke, Blomquist accepts an offer from a elderly CEO named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to write a book detailing his large, troubled family's history in Hedeby Island in Hedestad, a bleak, frigid tundra of a place. Vanger also wants Blomquist to play detective and find out what happened to his niece, who mysteriously disappeared 40 years earlier. This mystery will form the crux of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Meanwhile, Fincher cuts to the unfortunate life of a young, multi-pierced and tattooed woman named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has had a lifetime of foster homes and remains a ward of the state due to being declared unfit to manage her finances. She seems to be a classic sociopath, often quite brutal, but with a keen self-awareness. Her personality and strong intellect suggest perhaps undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. She works as a researcher and computer hacker for a security firm. Her current job: doing an extensive background check on Blomquist.
Lisbeth is assigned to a new caregiver after her current one (a gentle fellow with whom she regularly plays chess) suffers a stroke. The new guy is, to put it mildly, a scumbag who will take advantage of her in multiple ways. One graphic and close to unwatchable sequence will find Lisbeth brutally raped. As I've gotten older, I've become much more sensitive to such scenes. As necessary to the story as it is, I think Fincher showed far too much; the screams would've been more than enough. Less is more. Less is more.
Blomquist and Lisbeth will eventually cross paths and team up to solve the mystery. Nick and Nora, they ain't. The writer learns quickly that Lisbeth is an incredibly sharp and organized young woman who tirelessly researches and pursues clues. She also can apparently retrieve any piece of data off any computer in existence. When Blomquist catches her attempting to hack into his computer with her trusty Apple ProBook, he tries to explain the boundaries she should observe and oh, that everything is encrypted. "Please.." she retorts with a roll of her eyes. She is Privacy's worst nightmare, perhaps Larsson's statement on the increasing surveillance in society. But what if Big Brother is helping to solve/prevent crimes?
And THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO does make many points on technology, how it insidiously has altered our existence. Also, how it contributes to isolation. It's a bit funny and ironic in this story as several of Venger's family members (including the creepy Martin, played by Stellan Skarsgård), live within sight of each other but barely (or never) speak to one another. They are already isolated and perhaps damaged beyond repair. Much is made of Lisbeth's lack of social graces and skills, but is she fundamentally that different than the Vengers? As the missing girl's story gels, several interesting points on identity will be raised. But the mystery, as I said, is nothing any fan of Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie hasn't seen before. The plot is fairly engrossing, but hardly inspiring or innovative. Old photographs and the book of Leviticus will be integral pieces of the puzzle.
But the film is arresting in its near continuous intensity. Fincher shifts gears deftly throughout, weaving disturbing imagery within traditional storytelling and suspense. Craig is game as the investigator but at times a bit more casual than you would expect of a man in such perilous conditions. Mara does fine work in the flashiest role, her very embodiment singular and alien-like. Also: violent, carnal, hyper-conscious, extraordinarily guarded. In the later segments of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, she will open up, allow herself vulnerability. In the final, abrupt scene, she does pay for that mistake.....