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Review: David Fincher’s ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ Is An Intense But Dispassionate Thriller

Reviews
by Todd Gilchrist
December 13, 2011 12:21 AM
18 Comments
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‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’

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.

‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’
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.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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.)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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]

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18 Comments

  • Ernie | January 7, 2012 9:05 PMReply

    Saw this movie last night and I am still in sort of a daze. While Daniel Craig was sort of okay...Rooney Mara stunned me! Obvious she was in this for the role...perhaps the role of a lifetime. I don't pretend to have the cinematic 'chops' of some of the people commenting..I just am an average guy who likes movies and characters. While the film was a tad too long...the film accomplished what I believe it set out to do: leave the audience quiet and reflective about what they have just witnessed. So...regardless of the directors place in film history...regardless of a re-make...regardless of the high cinematic expectations of some commentators...I liked the film!

  • k | December 15, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    What a lovely, detailed review. I so rarely ever find any as thorough. So to read yours is like reading a piece of literature itself.

  • ska-triumph | December 14, 2011 4:02 PMReply

    Bravo on holding off on the remake concern until the end of your thorough review. No doubt this will be an 8-course visual meal. But the very distance that you state is present in this and the Swedish original: could the source of that be the very book it's based on? Many folks I know that read the first book say that it's a slow burn toward the meaty climax. Sure all adaptations have this aspect but maybe being not "particularly emotionally engaging" is just unavoidable if Zaillan-Fincher stuck close to the narrative. The Scandinavian cultural context may not help either.

  • Jexicl | December 13, 2011 9:48 PMReply

    I hope that because I've read the books and "understand" most of what is going on I'll be able to appreciate the films material. It is infinitely better to go into a film with low expectations and curiosity, which really is what this review and headline have given me.

  • The HONEY SWAN | December 13, 2011 11:23 AMReply

    Well, I do believe it's time to question if David Fincher, at this period if his career, risks master status due to a filmography that is thematically light, affixied on clinical style over mature and weighty substance and contemplation of life. Dragon Tattoo, with its haute S&M poolside source material, and its unfortunate existence as a remake, means that it's a placeholder in Fincher's career, at worst a pointless set back. Unlike Infernal Affairs with The Departed, Dragon Tattoo doesn't reinvent the setting or culture of its characters. It gives a cold blooded make over to their clothes and attitude. Why is that worth it?

  • cory | December 13, 2011 10:29 AMReply

    Yep, agree with the review. It's a solid B, much better than the Swedish original but still hampered by the material which has too many fans to get into any drastic changes for an adaptation into what might have been a great film.

  • Mr Anonymous | December 13, 2011 8:00 AMReply

    I think B is a fair score. The film didn't need to be made, certainly not by Fincher. Let's just hope they give up on the sequels and Fincher moves onto another project and hopefully not a franchise. Something new and different.

  • Anon | December 13, 2011 4:01 AMReply

    @Jacob- I would agree-- I'd rather have seen Young Adult again then sit through this film. The main issue is that it's TOO damn long. I wasn't all that impressed by the cast, especially Mara. I preferred Rapace's portrayal of Salander and I have a feeling audiences will likely rally about Rapace over Mara. Rapace explored the rage and ya know, some emotion, while Mara has a blank expression for 75% of the film. Anyway, I don't think she'll get a nomination now but that's all right-- this is purely commercial play.

  • Jacob | December 13, 2011 3:58 AMReply

    HAHA in your face Rooney Mara. YOUNG ADULT is a better film... go see it.

  • GHOST | December 13, 2011 2:43 AMReply

    Went to the NYC screening, and read this "Playlist" review and the New Yorker one. Both are completely spot-on. The film is more fast-paced than I'd anticipated, and its look veers between "Fight Club" and "Zodiac", in the best ways possible. Not as visually flashy, but is absolutely gorgeous.

    Was surprised at how unobtrusive and not annoying at the Swedish accents were. At what point, I figured the actors had just sort of given up (not that Craig was even trying). Except Mara though, and her performance is unbelievably good and, IMO, better than Rapace. Mara's Lisbeth is colder and more indecipherable, which keeps Lisbeth from veering into caricature but still remain captivating and hypnotizing. Craig is effective and solid as Blomkvist, and surprisingly doesn't rely on that "leading-man vanity" in portraying a character who, from the source material, is quite the womanizer. He and Mara make a great on-screen duo, and I'd actually pay to see them in two more sequels based off this first film (and that's if Fincher comes back to direct them).

    I generally favor the original, almost always "foreign" source material over their lesser American remakes. And the original film/story isn't very remarkable beyond its initial premise and lead characters. But this is way better than the Swedish film. B+, A- would be more accurate.

  • jingmei | December 13, 2011 2:02 AMReply

    This review arouses more people's potential watching appetites for sure. As for Rooney Mara, "Her performance is worth watching just to see when and if the character ever smiles in the film"-interesting.

  • crust 3 | December 13, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    I just never got the excitement with this material, it's absolutely a basic story without much intrigue. But still looks visually exciting.

  • jimmiescoffee | December 13, 2011 12:49 AMReply

    good review.i hope i enjoy it more but sort of predicted this review coming. i like the scorsese stuff, however, i think 'the departed' is one of his best films. when it comes to fincher, he's one of the best right now. but for me i don't know if he'll ever top 'zodiac.'

  • SK | December 13, 2011 12:48 AMReply

    it's because the source material to begin with isn't that great. the attention Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gets is on the level of The DaVinci Code. Overrated and not that well written.

  • Fatpie42 | December 19, 2011 4:16 AM

    Ugh! I can't believe you are comparing the book of GWTDT with the book of DaVinci Code. It's actually a very solidly written trilogy and if you think that's B-grade then I'd have to rank DaVinci Code as F-grade trash at best.

    Meanwhile, I can't imagine how this movie is worth a "B" AND worse than Zodiac. Zodiac sent me to sleep!

  • ska-triumph | December 14, 2011 4:04 PM

    Should've seen your comment before making mine. But, hey, TGWTDT can't be the only B-material book that's been adapted into films that are "as good" or even "better" than the source material right?

  • Rafaela | December 13, 2011 9:38 AM

    Agreed! I thought the movie had the possibility of being way better than the book since Fincher said the script differed a lot. Guess that isn't the case... Because the book is totally B material. Better than The DaVinci Code, unless ou count the whole trilogy (books 2 and 3 are even worse. In need of a better editor who could say "Please cut these 100 pages out").

  • JIMMIESCOFFEE | December 13, 2011 12:52 AM

    i agree. it's absolutely B material.

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