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'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' review - An impeccably crafted mystery

On November 9th 2004, 50-year-old Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson died after climbing seven flights of stairs to his office and subsequently suffering a heart attack. Discovered amongst his possessions were manuscripts for three completed, unpublished novels that he had written as personal projects over a number of years. The first was printed and sold in Sweden less than one year later under the title Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), and again several years later in English as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that this novel sold spectacularly well across the globe, gave rise to two sequels, and spawned a successful trilogy of Swedish-made film adaptations.

Somewhat sheepishly, then, do I confess that I have not read any of the novels, nor have I seen any of the original Swedish films. My viewing of David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was my initiation into the world of iconic heroine Lisbeth Salander—the pierced/tattooed/bisexual angry-hacker-bitch whose popularity indicates perhaps an emerging willingness in audiences to finally deify a female action hero. Much like Fincher’s film, Lisbeth is brooding, gorgeous, and damaged, and while my unfamiliarity with her world is personally embarrassing, I suspect it leaves me better suited to judge the film according to its own merits.

And there are many, such as Jeff Cronenweth’s surgically meticulous cinematography, which effectively conveys the menace of the Vanger family island and its hints of Nazism and incest. Indeed, Cronenweth’s lens treats most of Sweden like some sort of nightmare: its vast wintery landscapes rendered dangerous and foreboding, its tranquil urban spaces both dim and claustrophobic. This is not the vision of an ultra-progressive social welfare state that we usually associate with Sweden, but rather a glimpse into its underbelly, where nationalists, white supremacists, rapists, and extremists of all sorts remain alive and active, hidden from public view.

Larsson spent a considerable part of his life investigating Swedish corruption and right-wing extremism, and conveyed his findings through his fiction, which is faithfully reproduced here by Fincher, who deviates very little from the original plot. The film introduces us to disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who is hired by wealthy industrialist and family patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his great-niece Harriet, ostensibly under the guise of writing the Vanger family memoir. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara)—the hacker who conducted Blomkvist’s background check for Vanger—has problems of her own: her new legal guardian has taken to withholding her financial assets, granting her access only in exchange for brutal sexual favours. Her revenge is one of the film’s highlights.

Eventually, Mikael’s search for answers leads him to hire Lisbeth, and together they tackle what is essentially an Agatha Christie-style mindfuck that further exposes the Vanger family’s uncomfortably morbid history the deeper they delve. But at this point our focus is less on the mystery itself, and more on the odd couple trying to solve it. After all, we are well into the film by the time Fincher’s protagonists finally meet, which gives the audience ample time alone with them, allowing their dilemmas to fester and grow organically. By the time they get down to the business of working the case, we’re far less interested in the killer’s identity than we are in watching them have sex and wondering how in the hell two such emotionally-scarred individuals could possibly carry on a working, sexual relationship.

In a film such as this, where character chemistry is crucial, casting becomes monumentally important. So, although I’ve grown weary of the mountains of praise still being heaped on Rooney Mara, I cannot label any of it unwarranted. She manages to channel Lisbeth’s screaming, white-hot rage into an eerily stoic expression of both detachment and prescience—that of a spiritual-cripple who wants to be left alone yet knows she never will be. Even as she initiates lovemaking with Mikael, it’s painfully apparent that she will never offer herself to him completely—she couldn’t, even if she wanted to. Craig contributes equally to their scenes together, communicating with great subtlety Mikael’s trepidations about becoming sexually involved with a 23-year-old criminal who knows more about his life than virtually anyone else. But, taken alone, Craig’s Mikael is a pale shadow compared to Mara’s Lisbeth. Although Mikael echoes Lisbeth’s own broken spirit, Craig is simply too confident and self-assured an actor to tackle a role that finds him both symbolically castrated and running scared.

Fincher’s previous film, The Social Network, featured a throbbing industrial-like soundtrack from Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his creative partner Atticus Ross, which proved to be one of its greatest strengths. Reznor and Ross are back again for Dragon Tattoo, and the result is pretty much the same, with Fincher’s vision of Sweden sounding just as intimidating as it looks. An unexpected, animated opening credit sequence is made all the more stimulating by Reznor’s cover of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”, with Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs providing the vocals. It’s a jarring beginning, but one that works undeniably well in fracturing audience expectations before the film itself begins.

Impeccably crafted, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo solidifies David Fincher as one of the most professional directors working today, and is absolutely worth watching. But its professionalism is also its greatest weakness. Just as Craig is a little too confident to properly fill his characters shoes, the film itself is a little too slick to properly convey the bleakness of its subjects, a little too perfect for its own good. This is no doubt compounded by the fact that its source material is heavily recycled, and therefore noticeably less compelling.

One might compare this film’s brutality to Seven, or its soundtrack to The Social Network, but as a whole it is most similar to Zodiac, a film maligned by audiences upon its release but which now generally enjoys masterpiece-status thanks to repeated viewings. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will not “malign” audiences, but I do not see it getting better with age.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Rating:  (Good)

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