"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" opens this week, marking David Fincher's third obsessive film about an intense hunt for a serial killer. What are Fincher's cinematic fixations when dealing with the pathology of murder?
Fincher's first contribution to the international franchise and third to his own serial killer oeuvre illuminates themes and forms from his previous work. Seeing "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" makes returning to "Se7en" and "Zodiac" more enjoyable. The three films are pieces in an ongoing sub-body of work that is methodical, ruthless and breathlessly watchable.
Fincher's first serial killer movie, "Se7en," written by Andrew Kevin Walker, begins with a sickening crime. An obese man has been forced to eat himself to death. To Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt, naive and angry), this murder seems like a run-of-the-mill act of sadism. But Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman, wary and sad) senses that the crime is the beginning of something more evil than he has witnessed in his career of police work. The word GLUTTONY written on the wall behind the fat man’s refrigerator only makes him more queasily certain of his hunch. As the film progresses, an unmatched serial killer’s master plan reveals itself in gut-wrenching turns: a series of victims is selected because they are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, and then each is brutally tortured and murdered in accordance with his or her transgression.
Fincher’s vision of the morally decrepit world of "Se7en" is rich with polar extremities. Somerset and Mills are well-matched foils: Somerset is old, patient, perceptive, and irrevocably tainted. He is also black. Mills, white and blond, is young, vigorously passionate, and hopelessly impatient. The film is unnervingly gory, but rarely explicitly violent.
Consider the presence of the written word throughout "Se7en." With each murder, the relevant deadly sin is scrawled in capital letters near the victim’s body. These words, which hold a prominent place in some indelible images, serve not only as grim reminders of the brutally calculated killings but also as literal signposts of the moral ugliness in the film. "Se7en" lets us visit godforsaken corners of a dark zone that is at once no place and every place.
"Zodiac" is more and less of a serial killer film than "Se7en." At a sprawling 157 minutes, the film leaves behind the titillation of killings by its second act, and instead examines one man's decades-long obsession with an impossible case. This man is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a nerdy newspaper cartoonist whose fixation with the allusive Zodiac killer matches the Zodiac's fixation with killing. Late in the film, an aggravated Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) says to Graysmith, "Zodiac hasn't written in three years. Do you know how many murders we've had in San Francisco since then?" This line perfectly captures the unusual arc of "Zodiac": the murders, once so vital, now feel distant. Irrelevant.
Where "Se7en" has elements of myth and fantasy -- a shadowy Prince of Darkness committing biblical murders in an unnamed city -- "Zodiac" is rooted in cold facts. The film's attention to the case elements is as rigorous as the creepily meticulous book upon which it's based. Fincher's evocation of 1970s San Francisco is rigorous, too.
As in "Se7en," the printed word is significant. The Zodiac's handwriting is its own character, and the killer's leaning, juvenile scrawl gets more screen time (and more glorious close-ups) than many of the actors in the film. Passages from The Inferno and Canterbury Tales are clues to the serial killer's behavior in "Se7en," and so too here are the coded, maniacal letters of the Zodiac. In many murder mysteries we wait for the culprit to arrive. In "Zodiac," we almost forget about the arrival of the culprit as we wait for the arrival of his messages. Fincher uses the written word again to strong effect in a montage. As time goes by on the case, Toschi and his partner chase innumerable leads, the Zodiac's coded symbols overlayed and dissolving in and out of the frame.
Classic film noir dealt with masculinity in crisis, and "Zodiac" is a perfect neo-noir because it is largely about men who fail. Graysmith never sees the Zodiac caught, Toschi's vanity gets him booted from the police force, and crime columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) drinks and smokes himself into obscurity.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" makes an inferior installment in the Fincher serial killer trilogy. Cut and constructed with switchblade efficiency, the film's sleek grey-black palette and exacting shot composition are coolly delectable to the eye. Fincher's vision of Sweden echoes both the gritty punk-grunge present in "Se7en" and the (albeit snow-blanketed) serenely malevolent countryside of sequences from "Zodiac."
Yet "Dragon Tattoo" is an uneven adaptation of Stieg Larsson's bloated and silly source material. An anticlimactic third act leaves behind the mystery of the first 100 minutes to form an extraneous, jarring epilogue. The film somewhat mirrors the structure of "Zodiac," but where "Zodiac" digresses from serial killings to delve into a transfixing character study, "Dragon Tattoo" unceremoniously swerves back to its least intriguing plot point, spinning its wheels like a streamlined motorcycle stuck in sludge.
Women are promoted from wives and victims, at least, via bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (well-played by a transformed Rooney Mara) -- although the nimbly acerbic heroine has her share of victimization. Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, best when he's opposite Mara) are fascinating foils. She's a severe pint-sized brunette enfant terrible, while he's a Nordic hunk, affable and passive despite his cut-throat muckraker cred. As in "Se7en" and "Zodiac," male anxiety laces "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," most explicitly in a graphic rape scene, and more subtly in the film's final moments. The screen fades to black, and Salander rides off on her motorbike, bound for certain isolation. Like Robert Graysmith or Detectives Somerset and Mills, she is one of Fincher's lone rangers: hurt, hardened, and living in a world where death is the currency.