David Fincher directing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the moral equivalent of Beethoven composing a jingle for a Bud Lite ad (a strictly hypothetical example, by the way—as far as I know, Beethoven never even had a Bud Lite.)
Of course, it’s not surprising that Fincher would be drawn to Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular series. It combines two of his favorite genres—the hyper violent serial killer pic and the insiderish procedural. It’s just that after the career heights of The Social Network, I expected to see a new sophistication from Fincher. Instead, it looks like he’s retreating to the grungy comfort zone of films like Se7en and Fight Club.
Now, I don’t want to turn this whole review into a referendum on Larsson’s book, but its success has always irked me. To me, it’s a comic book masquerading as serious grown-up entertainment. The villains are all deviant bureaucrats and Nazis and serial killers. There’s tons of sexual violence, followed by equally rococo revenge. (The book wants it both ways: to titillate with violence and then give us the moral balm of seeing the perpetrators come to vivid justice). Of course, I see the appeal of Lisbeth Salander—the emotionally wounded, androgynous, cyber-punk heroine. She’s one of the great super heroes ever created. But to me, that’s all she is—a comic book character. Those who say she’s a triumph of genuine female empowerment have lost me.
Okay, enough of that. . .So how’s the film? Well, masterful, I suppose, on its own terms. Markedly better than the Swedish version, although that one worked in a certain matter-of-fact way.
Does anybody not know the plot at this point? Just for the record: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a reporter still reeling from a libel scandal, has been hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the aging patriarch of an old-guard Swedish family, to reopen the 40-year-old case of the disappearance and presumed murder of his beloved niece. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a computer hacking genius and ward of the state, fending off a sexually predatory case worker. Eventually, Blomkvist will hire her as a researcher, and they become tenatative allies, lovers, and friends.
Of course, even comic book characters can result in brilliant performances—just ask the late Heath Ledger. And Rooney Mara is electrifying as Salander. Even in the intimidating wake of Noomi Rapace’s memorable depiction in the Swedish version, Mara makes the elfin, coiled, damaged-but-defiant Salander very much her own. (And the makeup artist who decided to bleach and pierce her eyebrows is a genius—it gives her a compellingly alien look.)
As for Daniel Craig? The actor’s wonderfully worn, bluntly handsome face almost single-handedly elevated the putrid Cowboys and Aliens to watchable status—and his great mug is put to necessary use here as well, since Mikael Blomkvist isn’t really much of a character. He’s dogged, idealistic, and gentle—meant to represent that rare beacon of male decency (although even he cheated on his now-ex-wife—in Larsson’s world, all men have something to be ashamed of). I do have one small quibble with Craig’s depiction: Blomkvist’s wardrobe—all chunky heather gray sweaters, dark wool scarves, and perfectly indigo dungarees—is a bit more “New York gallery owner on a ski holiday” than “world-weary reporter on a case.” But hey, it’s not Craig’s fault and he sure looks great.
Fincher deftly keeps his two heroes apart for the first half so that when they finally do come together, the film gets a jolt of energy (not that it needs it— even at two and a half hours long, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo zips along at a Eurorail pace).
The American auteur emphasizes Salander’s longing for Blomkvist more than his Swedish counterpart did (making the ending that much more touching) and his film is certainly more intense and scary—a confrontation between Blomkvist and the possible killer had me reminding myself to breathe.
But how can even the film’s staunchest defenders not laugh at the ridiculous moment near the end where Salander dons a blonde wig and a power suit and goes undercover like she just strutted off the set of one of her co-star’s Bond films?
If there was any doubt left, the film reveals itself once and for all in that moment as pure fantasy escapism. But fantasy escapism with a side order of rape and torture? Thanks, but I’ll pass.