Looking at “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” it’s hard not to think of the dark thriller-cum-procedural as director David Fincher’s “The Departed." Notwithstanding both films being inspired by/remade from acclaimed foreign predecessors, Fincher and Scorsese alike seem to be saying with them, “You wanted me to do this kind of movie? Well, here it is, motherfuckers.” Like “The Departed,” 'Tattoo' is a film that falls squarely into the director’s wheelhouse, and like Scorsese, it follows at least one passion project (Scorsese had “Gangs of New York,” Fincher had “Zodiac”) and one comparatively more conventional bid for acclaim (“The Aviator” versus 'Benjamin Button'). And perhaps most importantly, they’re both red-meat crowdpleasers that still retain a real unique sensibility, and possess a genuine artist’s eye behind the camera. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” withholds none of the sophistication or intelligence of its cinematic forebear, creating a dyspeptic thriller that succeeds precisely because it flirts with conventionality until audiences themselves start to want anything but that.
Daniel Craig (“Casino Royale,” “Cowboys & Aliens”) plays Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist who reluctantly accepts an assignment investigating the disappearance of a young woman named Harriet Vanger under the guise of writing the memoirs of her retired CEO uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer). Relocating to Henrik’s island, Blomkvist immerses himself in Vanger family history, and begins to uncover secrets that suggest one of Henrik’s relatives was responsible for Harriet’s disappearance. But when he runs into one too many dead ends, he requests an assistant, and eventually hires Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, Facebook’s raison d’etre in “The Social Network”), an odd young woman who impresses him when he discovers she’s the person who vetted him for the Vanger job in the first place.
As the two of them grow closer, both personally and professionally, Salander becomes an invaluable ally in uncovering information, as much because of her own troubled past as her intrepid, albeit abrasive dedication. But before too long, Blomkvist uncovers information that someone would prefer to remain hidden, and he and Salander find themselves in danger even as they get closer and closer to finding out the truth.
After watching the technical sophistication of his production for “Zodiac” and “The Social Network” on their DVD releases, it’s fascinating to see David Fincher reach a point in his career where he can make stunning accomplishments that seldom if ever call attention to themselves. In 'Dragon Tattoo,' the world feels seamless and complete in a way that few other films do, and there are rare traces of the filmmaking flourishes other directors regularly employ, either in terms of cinematic self-acknowledgement or just general methods of completing scenes and sequences. (That said, an early rear-projection car scene only looks partly convincing, and the wetdown of a covered parking garage feels conspicuously inorganic). Infringements upon this hermetically-sealed world are admittedly nitpicking at best, because what Fincher does is more than create a believable physical universe — he generates one that is reflective of the tone and attitude of the storytelling as well.
In a remarkable way, Fincher synthesizes the best of both of his two previous serial killer movies, “Seven” and "Zodiac,” but combines them with a maturity that shouldn’t be mistaken for boredom with the material. The sense of procedure he examines via Salander and Blomkvist owes a significant debt to “Zodiac,” because it’s often dryly executed, and by necessity often largely expository – this guy did this, and that’s why that happened, and so on. But Fincher frequently intercuts Blomkvist’s efforts with Salander’s, and the young woman’s persistence has an entertainment value all its own, even when she’s just poring over maps and scanning through photographs. (It certainly helps that her brusque, to-the-point demeanor belies a febrile intelligence and even a poetic simplicity, rather than, say, just pure know-it-all obstinacy.)
As Salander, Mara makes the deepest impression in the film, not simply because of her unflattering mangle of hair, absence of eyebrows and head-to-foot tattoos and piercings. The young actress seems to know what an opportunity the film may be for her, and she throws herself into the role with an enthusiasm that manages to feel carefully controlled — there are no stray movements in her performance. Much like it must be in Salander’s world, Mara executes her role (and by proxy, her character’s daily life) with maximum efficiency, racing across the chilly terrain of the film (on foot or motorcycle) and handling each new challenge – including the discovery of feelings she thought were long-buried – with a certain pragmatic indifference. Her performance is worth watching just to see when and if the character ever smiles in the film.
As Blomkvist, Craig’s accent is unfortunately uneven, but he does a good job of submerging the journalist’s humbling disgrace deep within an indefatigable if, in comparison to Salander, hopelessly conventional approach to investigative work. Craig spends little time showing Blomkvist worrying about his reputation, or later even his own life, and focuses on the tasks before him, to significant dramatic effect. Meanwhile, the irony is that the film as a whole feels like a testament to solid reporting and investigation – appropriately enough, enabled only by the deep pockets of benefactors unconcerned about cost – and Blomkvist by any standard is at the top of his profession. But the occasional juxtaposition of his shoe-leather techniques with Salander’s technological virtuosity suggests that there’s always something faster, better, more effective just around the corner, and Craig sheds leading-man vanity to play Blomkvist as past his prime, even if he still looks pretty terrific shirtless.
Whether or not the film really needs to exist given the Swedish trilogy that precedes it is largely immaterial. It exists. And to its credit, it makes few concessions to mainstream appeal, even as it feels poised to be dubbed “that rare movie for grown-ups” because it dares to keep the audience guessing for more than a minute or two at a time. But did Fincher need to make the film? Probably not. It feels like a lesser work in his canon, even as his pedigree gets sharper and more refined with each film he directs. But like “The Departed,” it feels like a concession to an audience that a filmmaker needs not appeal to, either critically or commercially. Or at worst, 'Tattoo' seems like a distraction from projects which consume him and drive him to more singular feats of artistic accomplishment.
Ultimately, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is beautifully-executed, well-acted and well-told, but it shares one unfortunate thing in common with the film that preceded it (and which may have been the reason Hollywood chose to remake it): for all of its promised viscera, intrigue and melodrama, it isn’t particularly emotionally engaging, preferring the details of a mystery that is solved without a lot of pyrotechnics, literal or otherwise. And while its final scene ranks among the best of the year craftwise – a brilliant example of storytelling that builds to an unconventional payoff, and somehow miraculously synchronizes the audience’s appetite for just that kind of an ending – the loose ends of its many story strands confuse the emotional focus of the overall film, leaving the audience following characters whose journeys are over, or worse, whose journeys they weren’t aware they were on for the previous two-plus hours. And that’s not a matter of surprise, or even the complexity of an unfolding narrative, but a big shortcoming, and a considerable one, for a film with a long list of superlatives to its credit. [B]