[There be slight spoilers – you have been warned]
Without equivocation, David Fincher is a bad ass director. This is said not so much due to his directorial style but rather his ability to take on controversial, even disturbing, subject matter yet still make it palatably acceptable to the general movie going public; even making heroes out of individuals who under normal societal conceits would be considered “deplorable”. Despite the anarchist nature of Fight Club’s “Tyler Durdan” or the anti-socialism of The Social Network’s “Mark Zuckerberg”, Fincher makes them characters that one can, if not root for, at least understand. He performs the same feat here in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a remake of the foreign film starring Noomi Rapace, both based upon the novel by Steig Larsson (adapted for screen by Steven Zaillian). Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in an arresting performance) is an insane ward of the state. She is also a more than capable investigative hacker. She is also a cypher, brusque beyond rudeness and vicious when called for, and in this film it is more than called for.
But then, in a film laden with misogynistic overtones such as this, such a heroine is demanded, since the plot itself hinges on the investigation conducted by disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to solve the of the murder of one Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal) at the behest of Vanger patriarch and industrialist Hanrik (Christopher Plummer at his most ingratiating). Set in the dead of a Swedish winter, the story itself is as bleak in tone as the stark, gray weather represents. The film is replete with situations and imagery in which various women are brutalized, humiliated, and demeaned and it is most epitomized in Salander who suffers indignities of her own. However, she also exemplifies the reclamation of women taking back their lives form the hands of their oppressors (a few scenes had women in the theater I attended cheering and a couple of men squirming in their seats). This is a delicate balancing act that Fincher is able to manage almost effortlessly, aided by Mara’s star making, layered performance. The actress has a balancing act of her own. Physically waif-ish and pale, her physicality belies the steel at her character’s core (symbolized by her character’s piercings and tattoos). However, Mara also manages to imbue an innate vulnerability to the character, a girl who wants to know love in a world she cannot accept and refuses to accept her. Fincher uses her judiciously. When she is not on the screen, her absence is decidedly felt. When she is, the events crackle. She and Fincher bring to light the more disturbing aspects of the film, putting them in bas relief so that the viewer has no choice but to confront some of the baser desires of a misogynistic nature, but by the same token showing that such things need not be accepted.
However, the film has a top billed star in the form of Daniel Craig. While he does not quite take a back seat to Mara, this is one film that is not completely on his shoulders. In fact, it is an “reverse-Bond” film (despite a) the rather Goldfinger-esque nature of the opening credits and; b) that the film contains a former “Bond” villain in the form of Steven Berkoff and one of Craig’s rival for the “Bond” role, Goran Visnjic), as it is the woman who has all the gadgets, is highly promiscuous, and saves the day. Craig, as a reporter who is disgraced due to publishing an inaccurate expose of industrialist Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), brings a different sort of edge to Blomkvist, one that comes from a place of helplessness. The reactive Blomkvist is a far cry from Craig’s more proactive Bond; the juxtaposition of which, whether intended or not by Fincher in the casting, makes the performance more effective. When the character is in dire straits, it is much more compelling in spite of Craig’s association with the iconic super-spy. Legend has it that part of the reason that George Miller’s The Aviator (1985) failed because Christopher Reeve’s association with “Superman” was so ingrained that audiences could not accept him as a pilot who could not fly out of his predicament. Craig manages to transcend that particular tightrope here, effectively sublimating his usual on-screen tough guy persona to marvelous effect.
They are supported by a wonderful supporting cast, most notably in the performances of Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff and Yorick van Wageningen. Each character has a moment to shine and all of them deliver.
The film is a taut, suspenseful thriller though not without its slow spots, especially in the first twenty minutes or so; something that should be expected given that the source material is over 500 pages long. However, it is necessary to fully establish what the two main characters are about, what motivates them, what separates them, and what ultimately brings them together. The best part is that it is the characterization and the pace that engenders the suspense. What little there is by way of gunfire and explosions are almost an afterthought and never seemed tacked on for their own sake. The performances and the direction are all that are required to hold the audience’s attention. In fact, is some cases the usual Hollywood violence tropes almost seem as intrusive to the proceedings.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has generated a lot of buzz both within and outside of the industry prior to its release, making it a film with high expectations. The film meets them and more. If you wish to have your sensibilities challenged this holiday season, then this is the film to see.