In two movies now—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network—director David Fincher has made something exciting out of the mundane. Not that the mystery at the heart of this remake isn’t engrossing, but the way its protagonists set about solving it, in the hands of just about any other Hollywood director, would be the film’s nadir. Like The Social Network‘s sequences involving long, impenetrable sequences of code, much of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is spent researching, blowing up photographs, looking through slide shows, the Bible, and, in 2011, a card catalog.
This meticulous combing through of old evidence should be boring, but it draws the eye in, asks the viewer to pitch in and solve the mystery with the detectives. It works, even if you can solve the mystery; even, I suspect, if you’ve read the original novel or seen the 2009 Swedish adaptation of it. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is beautifully crafted and well-paced. Clocking in at well over two hours, containing three seemingly unwieldy plots that don’t converge at the center until midway through the movie, Fincher manages to cast familiar territory (even if you haven’t read the novels, the set-up is pure Agatha Christie) as dark, ominous and full of dread. It’s obvious the characters in the movie are walking through a minefield. The suspense is waiting for one of them to make the wrong step.
After being brought down by a Swedish tycoon for a supposedly libelous article in Millennium Magazine, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by the millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old case of his murdered niece, Harriet. The circumstances of the day—a family reunion/company board meeting on a private island, the bridge to which was cut off by an automobile accident—means that Harriet was murdered by one of her own family members, all of whom lead reclusive lives on the island’s various houses. All of the family members appear unbalanced, some of them were Nazi sympathizers during the war. The mystery, for all intents and purposes, seems indecipherable; Blomkvist has been hired to chase after ghosts at the edges of old photographs.
He is eventually assisted by Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a damaged, abused young woman who, like Blomkvist, is an expert investigator, though she comes from an entirely different school of detection. Where Blomkvist relies on personal interviews and the old trick of posting suspect’s names on the wall, Salander is a search engine savant, an obsessive observer, and not entirely pleasant company. A ward of the state, Salander’s guardian suffers a stroke and is no longer able to handle her case. She is given over to Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a sadistic bureaucrat who’ll only give Salander an allowance should she be willing to trade in sexual favors. These scenes are gross and horrifying in ways unrivaled by films whose sole purpose is to be gross and horrifying, and Salander’s revenge is appropriately brutal and torturous. More importantly, they give her the necessary motivation to join Blomkvist. She is a victim chasing an abuser, a woman capable of great violence hunting men who hate women unable to fight back.
The great success of this film, beyond Fincher’s obvious talent for style, is in the performances. Even at the end, when the movie is plodding through the detritus of the investigation that saw Blomkvist disgraced, Lisbeth Salander is a captivating human being. She lives in the margins of other people’s lives. It becomes obvious that she doesn’t always want things to be that way, but the big mystery, bigger still than the one on Henrik Vanger’s island, is how she’ll become something more than the fetishized object of men like Bjurman’s—even Blomkvist’s—desire. Blomkvist, indeed, seems currently incapable of looking at Salander as something more than object. She does her job well and one presumes he finds her enjoyable in bed, but his tastes run mundane (his editor-cum-mistress Erika (Robin Wright)) and, as a romantic interest, Salander’s a bit of a reclamation project.
The plot strands Salander and Blomkvist in a cottage on Vanger’s island, connected nominally to the mainland by a bridge but, in fact, worlds away from either person’s idea of normalcy. The Vangers, whose business ventures have faltered since the sudden disappearance of Harriet 40 years ago, are an odd assortment of shut-ins, misanthropes, and Nazis. Even the two nicest members of the family, Henrik and Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) don’t seem quite right, as their lifetimes of isolation and power have effectively knocked the family from orbit. Most of the people encountered by Salander and Blomkvist are evil or under the direction of evil people, and the Vangers are so varied, so rough, so unlikable, that it’s quite possible any one of them murdered Harriet.
That, ultimately, is the problem with the mystery at the heard of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: The film spends so much time obsessing on Salander, Blomkvist, and the minutiae they’re wading in that much of the plot carries itself out, a precision timepiece ticking away in the background. On its own, the Vanger plot is engrossing material, one of a couple of plotlines that probably could have sustained its own film. While it’s effectively juggled, for the most part, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is nevertheless guilty of some wonky storytelling, if only because it is so taken with its leads. There’s good reason for all that, not the least of which being that the movie doesn’t take many liberties with the original plot. It’s just that I can’t imagine antagonists much more brooding and mysterious than the Vangers, and their coming and going in one film seems all too easy, even if their purpose is to prove our heroes capable. They are, and they’re worth returning to. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo effectively sets the table—I just hope what’s next justifies leaving the island.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Directed by David Fincher. With Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), and Robin Wright (Erika Berger). Released December 20th, 2011, by Columbia Pictures.