I’ve probably gone back and rewritten this review multiple times over the past few hours. I’ve been struggling to come to a final conclusion to how I felt about the film. On one hand it is a hollow crime thriller, all polish and no substance, and on the other it is an exceptionally crafted dark and mysterious tale of sex, corruption and murder that oozes with atmosphere. One could make the case for either, and many critics have argued in favor of one side or the other. After a lot of contemplation, I’ve come to decide that it actually seems to rely on both being hollow and atmospheric, but what continues to conflict me is whether the former can truly be overlooked even if crucial to the final product.
‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ stars Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has recently come under a lot of scrutiny after being accused of making up a story about a wealthy executive and losing the case of libel brought upon him. Facing financial and credibility problems he is hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) a wealthy entrepreneur who wants Mikael to solve a ‘cold case’ that has haunted him for forty years, that being the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet who he believes was murdered by a member of his corrupt family filled with Nazis and recluses. As Mikael delves deeper into the mystery of her disappearance he hires the assistance of Lisbeth Salander, a goth-hacker with a dark past who has her own personal issues to deal with, specifically a financial guardian who wants sexual favors in order for her to access her money. When they are finally brought together they discover the dark secrets of the Vanger family and its links to a serial murderer case that begins to threaten their own lives.
David Fincher, who directed ‘Zodiac’ and ‘Se7en’, is no stranger to graphic and dark thrillers so it is no surprise that he handles the creation of ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ with a level of competence few other directors could have. Along with the help of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and being set in Sweden the film has a very dark and cold (often literally) tone, making an atmosphere just as chilling as the subject matter and beautiful to look at. Sadly under the gorgeous and dark visuals and the bleak and mysterious atmosphere there isn’t much to be had. There is a real lack of emotion and soul.
I can only assume that Fincher’s intentions from the beginning were to avoid any real substance, and to make a film just as hollow and sadistic as the story is was trying to tell. There is just about no emotion and so no reason to be attached to anyone except Lisbeth, but our empathy for her stems more from the vial acts we see acted upon her and less from truly knowing who she is, and why she is so emotionally restrained. It is not until the last twenty minutes that she gets any sort of development, but was it too little too late? Again I cannot decide. One could argue that this insight into the character earlier on would have made us care for her more, which I can understand. But I also question whether or not she could have even opened up the way she does at the end without having first gone through the events of the film, in particular the relationship she has with Mikael. Either way, I’m just glad Fincher went with Rooney Mara to play Lisbeth.
It is hard not to compare both film versions of the Lisbeth character, and even harder to choose which was better. This is mainly because both films, although similar in many ways, have very different tones. The Swedish version is a much more straight forward thriller and Rapace’s Lisbeth fits that film in being just a strong and tough individual, though there doesn’t seem to be too much below her surface and most of the development of her past is shown. Mara’s Lisbeth is a much more complex character, and although the film doesn’t give her much depth in terms of story until the very end, Mara gives off hints of a disturbing past just in the way she talks and moves, especially when men get too close to her. In reality she is a much weaker character than in the Swedish version. I personally liked that soft side because it makes her feel more like a vulnerable woman so when she fights back it feels more powerful.
It is this humanization that really helps propel Fincher’s adaptation over the Swedish version in my eyes. Even Daniel Craig, who put on a very good performance, is given a lot more to do and a much more interesting personality. He gives the character a bit of charisma, and wasn’t just a monotonous individual, like in the original, making it easier for us to care for both him and Lisbeth. It also makes their odd but provocative relationship seem more genuine and intimate.
All of this stuff I loved…but then I fall back to feeling like it was all for nothing. I mean it looks pretty, and the mystery is intriguing and the atmosphere is dark and cool, but once it is all over nothing really sticks other than the technical aspects. This isn’t helped by the fact that it over stays its welcome for the last few minutes, even if it adds to the characters. Luckily the pacing is done well enough to never make it feel boring but it does end up being rather anti-climactic. But I feel a second viewing is necessary.
With that said, as conflicted I am about everything else one thing that I can say for certain was fantastic is the score. It was crucial in the creation of the moody and dark atmosphere. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who did the Oscar winning score for ‘The Social Network’, continue to impress and help give the film a pounding and chilling heartbeat. Also the ‘Bondesque’ opening credits, a brilliant animation of dark tar, leather and gothic imagery set to Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, was absolutely stunning.
So overall I will say that it is an incredibly well-crafted and dark thriller with fantastic visuals and a wonderful performance by Rooney Mara and because of that it certainly deserves a lot of credit but below the surface it is a rather hollow and anti-climactic story making it hard for me to love it as much as I might have wanted to. It also did not help that going into it my anticipation was at an all-time low due to the hype that was built up around it and by how much I liked the original. So for now I’ll just say I enjoyed it for what it was, it certainly is well crafted enough to deserves the praise it is getting, but a second viewing will determine whether or not I truly thought it was a great film. Still I recommend it for those interested.