Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.
David Fincher‘s 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is both a quite good movie and a deeply frustrating one. At its best, it thrillingly delves into the art of investigation through the eyes of two well-crafted and well-performed protagonists. At its worst, it falls flat on its face and takes its sweet time to get up, dust itself off, and get back into a groove.
When Rooney Mara’s relentless investigator Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig’s driven journalist Mikael Blomkvist are working together to crack a decades-old mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is magnetic. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (The Irishman) grok the enthralling and infuriating the act of searching, of finding threads waiting for a pull, of pushing back against obstinate gatekeepers, of putting everything together so that a scribble becomes a spiral towards the end of play. And thanks to Mara and Craig, Dragon Tattoo has a pair of particularly compelling investigators. Whether they’re working the case alone or together, Salander and Blomkvist are fascinating to watch.
Salander, the Millennium series’ anti-heroine and iconic character, approaches the investigation as a researcher. She gathers all the data she can and digs into it. She finds connections and brings them together. But she doesn’t just assume that she has found the answers because one possible timeline of events checks out. She doesn’t stop until she’s certain. And then she acts. And when Lisbeth Salander acts, she acts.
Blomkvist, Dragon Tattoo’s viewpoint character, isn’t as prone to thorough, merciless violence as his friend and part-time sexual partner. He is, however, a great deal more comfortable directly interacting with other people. His wide range of contacts provides him with perspectives he’d otherwise miss. He can draw answers out of everyone from an elderly, unrepentant Nazi to a big-hearted critical witness who had no idea she had witnessed anything.
Mara plays Salander as cautious, guarded and lonely. Early into Dragon Tattoo, her legal caretaker, one of the few people she’s comfortably close to, is incapacitated by a severe stroke. His successor proves to be a sadist and a rapist. Salander exacts vengeance on him and breaks his power over her, but she’s still down a friend. And as comfortable as she is alone, she cherishes the friendships she does have.
Craig plays Blomkvist as sweet, disenchanted, and lonely. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens with a slimy billionaire successfully framing him for libel, destroying his reputation. Blomkvist’s efforts to shield his magazine from the fallout drive a wedge between him and his long-time lover and business partner, Erika (Robin Wright). He and his daughter, Pernilla (Josefin Asplund), love each other but hold vastly different views on the world. Blomkvist is adrift, rattled by his loss in court. Blomkvist taking Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) offer to investigate the vanishing of his grandniece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal), in exchange for info on the billionaire is as much an attempt to get himself back together as it is a shot at clearing his name.
Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian grok the enthralling and infuriating the act of searching, of finding threads waiting for a pull.
Together, Mara and Craig build Salander and Blomkvist an odd, close relationship. They’re wildly different people, but they share a mission, a passion, and a need. They want to find out the truth behind Harriet Vanger’s disappearance. They want a man who’s spent decades viciously murdering women to answer for what he’s done. And they’re lonely. These commonalities create space for the performers to build trust and, ultimately, intimacy and friendship.
Plus, for fans of Craig, it’s a bit of a treat to see him poking at the public’s perception of “Daniel Craig, James Bond.” Blomkvist is heroic and good. He’s also a stressed-out dude in early middle age who’s decidedly freaked out by the increasingly horrible turns the Vanger investigation takes. Consider this scene, where an unseen assailant takes a shot at him. Blomkvist braves the head wound and makes it home, but he’s not someone who can just shrug off pain, nor is he a fan of impromptu surgery.
While Fincher handles Salander, Blomkvist, their investigation and their relationship with aplomb, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo struggles with adapting the additional pieces of the story. This is plainest in the sequences dealing with the extended Vanger clan, who range from a decent person who’s estranged herself from the clan (Joely Richardson) to the earlier mentioned Nazi to Blomkvist’s grieving employer. The cast does good work, but a fair few of their scenes feel more like time marked than progress made.
Likewise, if Dragon Tattoo finds its stride once its protagonists begin working together, then the hour it takes them to meet up crosses from necessary set-up to over-extended delay. Once Fincher gets to the verb, it clicks, but it takes a long, long time and some frustrating creative choices to get there. At its worst, parts of Dragon Tattoo feel completely detached from one another. Blomkvist’s framing by the slimy billionaire is narratively important, but the potential thematic connections between his actions and the killer’s crimes are ignored. The same goes for Sweden’s unresolved history with the Nazis and their successors in bigotry.
When it focuses on its leads and their craft, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an enthralling film. When its scope broadens, it flails. It’s beautifully shot and well-acted flailing, but it’s flailing, nonetheless. Outside of folks who love the Millennium series, it’ll do the most for folks who dig Mara, Craig, and the not-so-simple art of solving murders.