Active Ingredients: Expressive cinematography; Sound; Atmosphere and setting
Side Effects: Story and plotting; Broad villainy
With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher may be cementing his status as the best director of airplane novels around. It’s a regrettable distinction, of course, one that a filmmaker with his talents doesn’t deserve, but his pattern of elevating mediocre material is worrisome. With last year’s brilliant and meaty The Social Network as an obvious exception, Fincher’s thrillers and crime films showcase his extraordinary energy and visual eye as a director. He confidently carries inferior stories over the finish line. Fincher directs the hell out of his movies because he has to. Give him a script as good as The Social Network’s and great things happen; with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo he delivers a better film than most directors could have, but one that doesn’t reach Fincher’s capabilities.
Based on Stieg Larsson’s enormously popular book, the film follows disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s attempts to solve a decades-old murder involving a wealthy and loathsome family of Swedish businessmen. The film recalls the themes of Zodiac and shows that Fincher is deeply interested in the investigative process, the piles of research materials and late night computer sessions that result in the resolution of a mystery—or the fear of uncertainty. Since the details of this case provide so little intrigue on their own (the standard grisly crime scenes and perplexing codes), the director’s interest in the obsession of detective work is welcomed, if not as incisive as in Zodiac.
Meanwhile, the tortured and aggressive Lisbeth Salander struggles with constant and violent misogyny, a theme which drags her into Blomkvist’s mystery. Though the film’s portrait of Lisbeth is significantly stronger and more specific than the Swedish version, and Rooney Mara’s performance is convincing and committed, the character of the girl with the dragon tattoo simply does not fascinate me as she does millions of readers. Perhaps it’s the constant presence of monstrous, simplistic and unmotivated hatred of women—the single force driving Lisbeth and the film—that leaves no room for subtly and keeps me at a distance.
This, again, is where Fincher has done his material a fantastic service, animating its static plotting and suggesting a depth the screenplay alone can’t muster. It’s a long and talky film, never dull but sometimes close, and it affords Fincher precious few opportunities to deliver the kinetic and purely visual setpieces he’s capable of (like a breathless De Palma-esque purse-snatching scene). Instead, his pacing covers up the story’s deep structural flaws, just as his beautifully cold and metallic cinematography masks the banality of the mystery. Fincher gives us the best Girl with the Dragon Tattoo we’re likely to have gotten, but his considerable talents would be better employed elsewhere.