In a famous interview, John Lennon said, “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.” Aside from being paraphrased and reinvigorated by Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, the line delineates why the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a success: director David Fincher is the artist, and the Stieg Larsson novel is the tuba.
At its best, the adaptation is steady-velocity mystery, complete with pulp and sinister details. But before the investigation gets underway, Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian develop their lead characters with shrewd precision. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is the de-facto private detective, hired by Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a mysterious disappearance. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is the androgynous, antisocial hacker who performs a preliminary background check on Mikael. In dissimilar ways, they’ve both been wronged by the justice system: he’s reeling from an unsuccessful legal battle, and she’s a ward of the state, with a twisted monster as her new case officer.
The sub-plot of Lisbeth and her case officer (Yorick van Wageningen), which includes several scenes of brutal sexual assault, adds emotional resonance to the mystery. With clinical style, Fincher restrains the story’s exploitative streak by cutting away from the rape. Instead, he focuses on Lisbeth’s helplessness and Mara’s fearless acting. After Lisbeth gets her revenge, Mikael asks for her help in catching a killer of women. Her silent, vulnerable reaction justifies what previously felt seedy and tacked-on for the sake of grisliness.
The Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo did not work because director Niels Arden Oplev had trouble adapting the thrill of investigative discovery. Fincher does not have that problem, as he weaves background information and clues with ease. In these stretches, the characters are secondary to what they’re studying, where it’s a bible passage or a photograph (the dissonant score by Trent Rezor and Atticus Ross is critical to the atmosphere). Mikael and Lisbeth serve as vessels of exposition: Fincher’s camera follows the documents, not the characters holding them. Still, there are deliberate moments where Mikael and Lisbeth are ahead of the audience. Obscure connections leave us craving to know more. And interviews with the eccentric suspects in the disappearance, all residents of the island, deepen the atmosphere further.
The methodical middle section lays the foundation for a suspenseful climax. There is already a sense of extreme isolation when Mikael breaks into the home of his chief suspect, and the silence only exacerbates the terror. The payoff to the break-in is a long scene where Mikael talks to the killer. It works thanks to the actor playing the killer (I won’t say who). He finds a way to be deranged, intelligent, and even funny in a macabre way.
But for all the myriad ways Fincher unearths the cinematic potential in the Larsson novel, there are times where his adaptation misfires. The worst offender is what happens after the climax, since it takes an additional thirty minutes for Fincher to tie up all the loose ends. With all the mysteries solved, there is still the matter of Mikael’s legal trouble. Fincher’s clunky direction does not match the elegance of Lisbeth’s solution, and again, this is a consequence of weak source material. Too much depends on characters watching cable news; unlike the investigation on the island, Mikael and the audience remain passive so the conclusion lacks velocity of the middle.
When I first heard Fincher was directing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was disappointed. Yet, as I was watching the movie, I better understood what attracted him to the material and my disappointment softened. He recreates the heavily-detailed, obsessive investigatory process that made Zodiac so addictive. Additionally, Lisbeth and Mikael have familiar qualities to other Fincher heroes (Zuckerberg and Graysmith in particular). Their scenes together are brimming with prickly energy, and lead up to a final shot that would be melancholy if it weren’t so emotionally brusque. As an early naysayer, consider me silenced because Fincher definitely has something here. I still want to see what happens when he’s given an orchestra and not just a tuba.