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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)

January 14, 2012

David Fincher’s return to the murder mystery genre proves especially notable in the context of his cinematic output to date, providing a blend of various aesthetic and thematic concerns of some of his previous films. The detailed, analytical investigative aspects of Zodiac encounter the outsider character study elements of The Social Network, as well as that film’s rapid-fire depiction of digital technology and what pursuits involved with it can expose about people; there’s also a reprisal of the explicit serial killer and abuse content of his breakthrough film Se7en. Much of this is made quite overt in the film’s opening credits sequence, which bring to mind the dark but mischievous opening of his 1995 film. Set to a blistering cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with vocals from Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, among its oily blackened images is the sight of tentacle-like USB cables ensnaring figures both male and female, penetrating and destroying them. The murder investigated in the film’s narrative occurs around the time of those unsolved killings in Zodiac, but the contemporary tools of the digital era of the film’s main setting in the 2000s mean that issues of the past can still be dug up and resolved, allowing actions to finally have devastating consequences. If The Social Network had some commentary about digital technology’s means of destroying people’s connections, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s opening titles and thematic exploration go further to suggest that the digital can destroy people as a whole.

Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the girl of the film’s title, is somewhat like the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network in that she has everything worked out but people. Her means of understanding them is through the hacking of their digital devices and documentation of their lives for her employers; while a ward of the state, she also uses her computer hacking skills to assist with investigative work for a security firm. Daniel Craig’s old-school journalist Mikael Blomkist is an assigned target of Salander’s early on, the raiding of his life’s details causing understandable frustration. By the film’s end, Mikael accepts similarly illegally obtained information from Lisbeth for his own gain, accepting the destructive powers of the digital. That lives can be destroyed through such skills as Lisbeth’s is a reflection of mankind’s increasing close relationship with technology, and reminders of technology-reliant life are interspersed throughout the film. Mikael spends a lot of his time on the freezing island of the Vanger family simply trying to get a signal on his phone; those devices also play a part in an amusing scene in which a ring causes everyone present in a room to reach for their own mobile phone, regardless of the ringtone being anything like the one they use, almost like a compulsion.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in a similar fashion to Zodiac, is not so concerned with the reasons for situations and occurrences. The “whys” of a situation are bypassed in favour of a focus on the “hows” and “whats”. It is enough to simply know what happens, rather than explore motives, and even when some motives for actions are provided there is an air of indifference thanks to a lack of particularly detailed explanations. The film is packed with sequences lingering in process, ranging from both small, like moments documenting Lisbeth’s meal preparation, to expansive, like the film’s heist epilogue. Scored by an aggressively atmospheric contribution from Reznor and Ross, intricate montages document every step of every piece falling into place, regardless of whether it’s discovering the identity of a killer or Mikael simply journeying to his workplace following a court hearing, resulting in a rapidly ever-expanding compilation of details. It is a mystery film that is thrillingly focused on the investigative process rather than the crime.

Indeed, the moments where the film does falter are related to when the crime does take centre stage. A collection of sensationalist clichés – incest, rape and Nazis amongst them – surround the mystery of the disappearance and suspected murder of Harriet Vanger. Elevation of the case does not occur thanks to the suspects, minus Christopher Plummer’s patriarch and Stellan Skarsgard’s company head, being provided with flimsy portrayals. Each member is reduced to single characteristics and single scenes of focus, and the content of these scenes lend the players a caricature feel. The likes of Geraldine James do the best they can with the limited material, but they are simply not engaging characters and this mystery is just not especially interesting; the investigation of it certainly is, magnificently so even, but not those “whys” behind the “hows”. Furthermore, the identity of the killer is made relatively obvious, and their motives and practices are frustratingly basic and typical of this genre; it must be said, though, that the culprit’s implementation of an Enya song in a showdown encounter with one of the protagonists provides a fine example of dark comedy.

The strive for some faithfulness towards Stieg Larsson’s source novel also results in some tedium when there is a recurring emphasis on the troubles and struggles of Mikael’s publication, the Millennium magazine of Larsson’s literary trilogy’s title, and his relationship with his co-editor. Furthermore, while the heist epilogue maintains the expertly crafted direction of the rest of the film’s montage approach, it ultimately feels rather superfluous despite some expansion of Lisbeth’s character; it feels like an unnecessary extra chapter to a story that had already finished, only included to please people who like the book and to establish sequel material should the follow-up novels receive a similar adaptation treatment from Sony.

As hinted previously, Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard get a bit more to deliver than the rest of the Vanger clan, and both supply very solid performances. The acting, all around, is of a particularly high quality, its protagonists being especially interesting players to follow amidst Fincher’s investigative intricacies. Steven Zaillan’s script, despite its failure to elevate the banalities of the central mystery, is efficient and actually full of some great wit. Daniel Craig is excellent as the flawed, perceptive Mikael, delivering a fine low-key everyman turn. The film’s highlight, alongside its formal elements and their construction, is Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth. A detached but impulsive vessel filled with a perfect combination of both frail vulnerability and uncontrollable, unpredictable anger, Mara is an utterly magnetic presence to observe. Her petite physique and doe eyes hide her ferocity and terrifying capabilities, and her isolation as an individual extends to her withdrawn body language and eccentric, half-monotone vocal intonation. Alternately beguiling, sympathetic, funny and scary, Mara proves to be a revelation.

Reuniting with frequent cinematographic collaborator Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher creates a visually and sonically interesting fusion of the moody aesthetics of both Zodiac and The Social Network, aided by a new degree of bleakness thanks to the greys and whites of the film’s desolate winter setting expanding the sombre colour palettes of those previous works. The film, as a whole, is a very strong continuation and expansion of themes and concepts explored in those two films. Why it doesn’t reach the high heights of Zodiac is down to that central mystery. The exploration of the investigative procedure in that 2007 film did happen to be supported by a compelling story that wasn’t rooted in generic thriller elements. Nonetheless, Fincher, his cast, and the crew of reliable collaborators he reassembles here, manage to elevate the source material through other means, creating a riveting, playful spectacle of darkness.

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