VOD film review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
James R | On 23, Nov 2013
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard
David Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo was always going to have a lot to live up to – because of the guy at the helm, rather than Niels Arden Oplev’s previous film version of Stieg Larsson’s popular books. But Fincher announces his intention straight away, with an explosive opening credits sequence full of cold liquid, computer keyboards and shattered female silhouettes.
It screams James Bond in an angry, foreign voice, one of dark nightmares and twisted flashbacks – before we’ve even met the titular Girl, we see what’s in her head, establishing her as this franchise’s lead figure. After Benjamin Button and The Social Network, this already feels like Fincher back in Se7en territory. Grizzled, haunting and beautiful.
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) is hired by ageing industrialist Henrik Vanger (Plummer) to investigate the murder of his missing great-niece, Harriet. Relocating North from Stockholm, he takes on Lisbeth Salander (Mara) as his research assistant. She has a way with computers (*cough* hacker *cough*) that he thinks will be useful – not least because she did the Vanger’s initial background check on him.
The case unfolds slowly, as Blomkvist uncovers old secrets and lots of Nazis in the family closet. Who bumped off Harriet? Was it alcoholic anti-semite Gottfried? His son, Martin (Skarsgard)? Henrik’s icy lawyer (Steven Berkoff)? Her elusive cousin, Anita (Joely Richardson)? “I’m beginning to lose track of who’s who,” mumbles Mikael, standing in the frosty courtyard. Henrik nods with a wry smile.
That’s one thing Steven Zaillian’s script brings to the table: a black streak of humour, which does wonders for the book’s plodding plot, giving the dishevelled Craig a chance to use his deadpan comedy chops. The cast are all excellent, Skarsgard in particular milking every minute for the maximum amount of tension. It’s just a shame that Fincher has them all speaking English (something that jars when Lisbeth briefly says “Tak”, or Craig spells out signs from a blurry photo).
But speech is used sparingly. “I used to own a motorbike when I was younger,” Blomkvist tells Lisbeth after she rides up to the house. “I know,” comes the dismissive reply.
Fincher’s ability to show a story rather than tell it fuels every shot. His tracking shots stalk silently through the snowy wilds, at one point boldly swinging upside down over Lisbeth’s shoulder. His composition lingers on her, baring everything she has for the camera – including a t-shirt that reads “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”. Unlike Noomi Rapace’s Swedish Salander, who was engaging in her intense, stony resilience, Mara’s Lisbeth is vulnerable and withdrawn – until her fragile edge snaps, giving way to a vengeful fury.
It’s that balance between delicate and dread that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross nail in their jangly, eerie soundtrack. It’s a mesmerising combination that lets you sympathise with Larsson’s outcast, while also fearing her next outburst. At one point she turns to Blomkvist, looking for retribution. “Can I kill them?” she asks, doe-eyed and filled with rage.
Fincher whips through the convoluted serial killer hunt with confidence. Flashback sequences amaze in their efficient exposition, while Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s rapid editing is dynamic but not disorienting. The whole film has a scale that was missing from Oplev’s very good, but somewhat static TV production. The story feels more cinematic, even during the intimate, suffocating scenes of abuse and torture.
The only misstep is in the final act, which adheres perhaps too closely to Larsson’s text. Setting up the next two installments, the story drifts past the essential details to tie up earlier loose ends – a quest for narrative closure that is commendable, but arguably unnecessary, especially compared to the swift epilogue in the 2009 adaptation.
But Fincher finds his footing for a sorrowful final scene, which hammers home the isolation that made the dragon-tattooed girl so captivating in the first place. And now, thanks to Rooney Mara’s superb performance, she’s even more so.