As one of the few people left who did not read Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel or see the acclaimed Swedish film adaptation starring Noomi Rapace, it's impossible for me to determine if David Fincher's Hollywood adaptation is any better than either of the previous incarnations of the story, but it is a slickly entertaining thriller that prominently captures a foreboding sense of dread around each step of the investigation.
Amidst a media blitz over an unwarranted scandal that threatens to destroy his career, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) accepts an offer to travel to an isolated island in the chilliest part of Sweden, where rich industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) offers him an unusual job: use his skill at researching stories to investigate the unsolved murder of his niece, Harriet. The only potential catch: the incident occurred on the island, where the family still lives, meaning all the suspects are present and watching as he goes about his work. That several of them are also Nazis is only icing on the cake.
In the director's chair, Fincher avoids many of his usual flourishes, but his style is still more than evident. He and longtime cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth adopt a look similar to Panic Room that is the embodiment of the word "cool": sleek and steely, as well as icy. Without much effort, he generates electricity in the routine of investigation; whenever Mikael finds another clue, it gives the viewer goosebumps. In particular, the use of photographs, each capturing a chunk of the Vanger's long-buried secret, is so creepy at times it verges on a horror movie. It may not be all Fincher (I have to guess it's from the book), but the imagery is evocative, and he uses it to ratchet up the paranoia. By the second half of the movie, as the investigation is coming to a head, one worries someone is lurking around every corner. He even slips in a little of his wicked humor; the way he panders to the audience's affection for a stray cat is funny in retrospect. Again, those familiar with the story may not have the same experience, but Fincher's delivery of the material isn't to blame. Only the bizarre opening credit sequence feels completely out of place.
If Fincher's technique is skillful, his casting is inspired: Craig as Blomkvist, and Rooney Mara as the titular girl, Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is a different type of investigator, one that happens to have prepared a report on Mikael before Vanger decides to hire him. With emotionless precision, she uses her hacking skills to get inside emails (she watches at least a couple being typed), access locked police records, dig up the secrets that are most deeply buried. She is as good at doing this as she is bad at relating to many people, including the slimy lawyer in control of her finances, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). It's almost as if the spiritual calm and endless skill behind a keyboard costs her a level of emotional flexibility. The one emotion she can summon with ease is her anger, and when Bjurman takes advantage of the control he has over her as the guardian of her money, she fights back with a brutal intensity. Many will look at Mara and be most surprised by her transformation from Mark Zuckerberg's new ex from the opening of Social Network to bloodthirsty punk-rock hacker, but the best aspect of the performance is the way Mara suggests the more fragile and lonely person underneath the hardened exterior at all times, without ever asking for the audience's sympathy. It's a subdued but compelling note that Fincher makes good use of. Conversely, Craig is mostly called upon to look thoughtful and exhausted, but he does both of them excellently. You can see the gears turning in his head, which helps energize the many scenes of investigation, and the enticing opening where Plummer lays out his compelling offer.
Those looking for a story with much depth will be left out in the cold, and I had at least one moral question about the film (is it right the way some of the developments with Bjurman are almost played for laughs?), but this is Fincher playing by the rules of the genre. He adheres to the conventions and formula of the genre while still elevating it with his careful craftsmanship, taking what seems like an airport novel and giving it elegant treatment. His Dragon Tattoo is accomplished, compelling, and still appealingly trashy.
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