Last year’s Oscar Stand-off between The King’s Speech and The Social Network was acted as a practical coronation for David Fincher as a God to the film critics and fanboys of the world. After almost twenty years working as a director, he’s delivered gritty classics like Fight Club and Seven – films that have garnered the die-hard support of a Cult Classic, while accumulating mainstream acceptance that takes him from the Underground to almost being a household name.
Fincher fans know that if there’s one thing their hero does well, it’s a Thriller. After a deviation from this specialty, with movies that included The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac, it’s been almost ten years since his last honest-to-Bob thriller, 2002’s Panic Room. This made the announcement that Fincher would be taking on international phenomenon The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo all the more exciting. A cyber-punk Swede taking on the corrupt history of a family with Nazi ties? If David Fincher can’t make that exciting, he might as well retire all together.
His adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, itself already adapted in its native Swedish, is hardly a bore. This razor-sharp, snowy-grey thriller doesn’t take a second to let you acclimate to the story, even to the detriment of its mystery.
Daniel Craig takes the lead here as Mikael Blomkvist, a convicted libeler that leaves his publication to track down the whereabouts of retired business magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer)’s niece, who disappeared as a teenager forty-five years ago. Craig brings enough humor to the role to avoid fair comparison to another, more famous, role of his; but everything around him makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo just as much of a James Bond film as anything else he’s been a part of, including a stylized opening title sequence.
As Blomkvist delves into the Vangers for clues, he uncovers a family full of too many secrets to investigate on his own, leading him to require a certain reptilian-branded young woman that you may already be familiar with. Lisbeth Salander, played with force by relative newcomer Rooney Mara, is an intense presence to say the least. If you remember Mara from her role at the beginning of The Social Network as Erica Albright (dumper of the Mark Zuckerberg character) you’re remembering a completely different person. Mara has shed weight and marked herself with tattoos and piercings that match her persona – that of an intensely withdrawn punk-hacker extraordinaire, with weirdly childish tendencies (watch her chew on a Happy Meal as she prepares for revenge on her rapist).
Mara ends up stealing the show from an on-game cast that includes the always delightful Christopher Plummer and a toothy Stellan Skarsgård. Admittedly, she’s got a pretty showy role to work with, but it’s also a performance of restraint for the often silent Lisbeth.
Surprisingly enough, what weakness the film has come from behind the camera. While the film moves remarkably fast, even at its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time, we’re receiving spit-fire clues that can hardly be kept up with. Fincher doesn’t treat the audience stupidly, and doesn’t line up characters to explain hints that can be shown visually in a photograph or caption. That’s all well and good, but like The Social Network, this is a fast movie with a new shot for every second that ellapses. Even on my second viewing of the film – which came a year after I’d seen the Swedish-language film, I still couldn’t connect a lot of the dots.
This should be a pretty damning statement, but Fincher and Mara’s vision have created a world that’s compelling enough to overcome some story-telling weaknesses. It’s not often that you can watch a film, not understanding what’s going on, and still be glued to the screen. But it’s not often we get a filmmaker like David Fincher.