Stieg Larsson's lurid crime novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has now been adapted for film twice; once as a straightforward, somewhat sterile Swedish-language film starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, and now for the English speakers courtesy of David Fincher. Fincher's version adds a great deal of stylistic dread to the proceedings, coating the camera in a layer of ice before making his actors (Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig) melt it off the screen with a mixture of fiery rage and grotesque violence. Where the first Dragon Tattoo film sometimes felt stilted, unsure of itself, and unwilling to delve into the truly seedy atmosphere of Larsson's book, Fincher dives in headfirst with aplomb.
And yet, there is something missing from Fincher's version that makes it somehow less memorable. It's certainly not the leads, who are as good or better than their Swedish counterparts. It's not the cinematography by Fincher mainstay Jeff Cronenweth, which is as moody and haunting as anything in Fincher's catalog--yes, even the much-vaunted crime classics Seven and Zodiac. And it's not the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which, more so even than their work on The Social Network, blends effortlessly into the fabric of the story, underlining the uneasiness of every desperate, visible breath expelled on screen.
So what is it then? I personally point to the script by Steven Zaillian, which is a bit of a mess. Any screenwriter attempting to adapt Larsson's Millennium trilogy is unquestionably in for a bit of a task, as the books are, to put it politely, dense. It's something that the Swedish film wrestled with as well, attempting to turn in a watchable movie while maintaining the key character moments spread throughout. In this regard, the Swedish film's sometimes clinical-seeming approach works far more to the story's benefit. Only small chunks of that film felt rushed through. Despite being a bit longer than its predecessor, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo runs at a breakneck pace that never, ever lets up.
And even with that breakneck pace, some of the story flaws inherent to the source material stick out all the more. We meet disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) in the middle of his own disgrace. We understand that he has published a story about a billionaire industrialist, and was successfully sued by said industrialist for libel. Now apparently ruined, Blomkvist seems an attractive target for an aristocratic family looking for an investigator to do some digging on a murder that has haunted the family's de facto leader (Christopher Plummer) for decades.
We learn prior to Blomkvist's acceptance of the job that he was investigated himself by a freelance security consultant and computer hacking enthusiast named Lisbeth Salander (Mara). Pierced, dyed, bleached, strapped, zippered, and whatever else you might conjure when imagining the accouterments of gothy rebellion, Salander is a ghostly waif of a woman, a ward of the state reduced to a kind of feral existence, scrounging for money, information on her various clients, and perhaps something that might even resemble a connection with another human being.
In this regard, Mara's Salander is perhaps a bit more identifiable as human than Rapace's was. Rapace was hellfire and brimstone, a buzzsaw of determination and seething anger. Mara embodies much of that rage and hatred--especially during the particularly cringe-inducing scenes with her sweaty, skeevy rapist social worker--but also exudes a kind of detached vulnerability; almost like an awareness of her own emotions, but an inability (or unwillingness) to access them.
Mara embodies the fierceness of the character wonderfully, and she's aided by a strong performance from Craig, who similarly feels more human, and less a vacant construct than Nyqvist did in his role. They're especially good in their scenes together, researching and investigating the horrible, murderous, backstabbing, Nazi-fueled past of this bizarre family. It's just a shame it takes over an hour to even get the two to meet on screen, and even longer for them to really get into the meat of the mystery. Much of the first hour of the film is spent setting up Salander's troubled existence (not to mention provide her an opportunity to get some extremely satisfying revenge on her rapist), while Craig wanders around in the snow looking for clues, and mostly getting nowhere.
Anyone who has read the book knows that this is symptomatic of Larsson's fiction. Fincher and Zaillian are just following the material they've been provided. Unfortunately, Zaillian never quite figures out the right balance between what to keep and what to cut. Whole sequences that feel like they ought to be lingered on a bit more are simply dashed through, especially toward the end, where everything is tied up so neatly and pristinely not just once, but twice, that you start to wonder why all that dread was inflicted on you in the first place.
Fincher, after all, is known for finding ways to get under the audience's skin. With Seven, it was the grisly, despicable nature of the crimes contained in the screenplay, and the deft, utterly mesmerizing execution of its twisty conclusion. In Zodiac, it was the obsession, the all-consuming desire to solve this utterly baffling crime, and the dangers surrounding that obsession that made the audience consistently uneasy.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo never quite finds a way to dig underneath the surface as those films did. No matter how twisted the elements of the family's past turn out, no matter how truly disturbing the motives of those involved are revealed to be, nothing quite sticks. You know these things you're seeing are horrible. You know that danger is there. And yet, it's hard to feel much of anything beyond a basic appreciation for the aesthetics. This Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an ice sculpture of a film. Beautiful to observe, but with little to contemplate. By the time this mystery finally melts, you won't remember much beyond how pretty it all looked.