'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' Review: David Fincher's Frostbitten, Dispassionate Thriller

(This review originally ran last week when Sony lifted the review embargo, but we're running it again today to coincide with the film's wide opening.)

Something at the center of Stieg Larsson's Millennium novels has captured the attention of millions. Actually, make that 'someone.' The first novel, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women, softened to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in many countries) spins around an unlikely nucleus: counterculture heroine Lisbeth Salander, a determined outsider possessed of keen investigative skills, a vengeful spirit and a strong sense of fairness. In the 2009 Swedish film adaptation, Noomi Rapace played Salander as a character just different enough to be a forceful vision, and familiar enough to become nearly iconic. But the film in which she lives is a routine potboiler of a thriller.

The directly translated Swedish title is promising in a way, as 'men who hate women' hints at a thriller that will use the conventions of a serial killer story to explore the ways in which abuse and violence shape people and their relationships to one another. The first film didn't skimp on the intersection of sex, power and violence, as a dethroned magazine publisher is hired to discover the truth about the murder of an industrial magnate's niece, but it was never any good at getting under the skin of the story.

Enter David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian with their own take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher also doesn't skimp on sex and violence, and in the middle of his dark, frosty film is a strange but tightly controlled performance from Rooney Mara as Salander. This film trims minor players and subplots to focus, in a slightly more effective manner, on these characters who have been molded by violence. And yet it remains merely a routine thriller. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a technically proficient piece of work, but it is almost as bloodless as an old murder victim.

Daniel Craig is Mikael Blomkvist, the magazine publisher in the midst of losing a court case in which he was accused of libel against a powerful businessman, Hans-Erik Wennerström. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a man with a grudge against Wennerström, hires Blomkvist to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece, Harriet. In return for the detective work, he'll give Blomkvist ammunition to use against Wennerström. To aid his investigation, Blomkvist recruits Lisbeth Salander, the investigator who did the background check on him that led to his hire by Vanger.

There is a lot more plot than that — so much so that Sony created four- and eight-minute trailers for this film just to acclimate audiences who have managed to avoid the book and earlier movie. Parts of the story are greatly streamlined, but this Dragon Tattoo is still a bloated piece of work, at more than two and a half hours. That's partially the fault of the source material. Nothing less than a radical plot restructuring, or at least some healthy cutting, is the only way to focus the novel into a surgically effective film. Zaillian and Fincher don't go that route.

Stieg Larsson had the freedom of prose, and indulged in a plot thread about Blomkvist's own revenge tale against Wennerström, and took the time to paint Blomkvist as a fantasy version of himself. Larsson was a journalist, and there can't be much coincidence to the fact that the hero of his story is a journalist who is disgraced, but not really, and who is sexually successful with women in his own social sphere, even as he also proves irresistible to the wild, damaged Salander. As part of the larger character portraits that span three novels, those threads may play a part, but I think they're detrimental to the effect of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as an isolated story.(Whether we should really look at this film in much the same way as we might The Fellowship of the Ring is a question that will be best after Sony produces films based on the next two Millennium novels, assuming such a thing happens.)

Larsson, it is worth noting, also made a career out of railing against certain abuses of power, and considered his own witnessing of a gang rape a formative moment. He saw the crime at age 15, and did not or could not help the victim. He spent his life regretting that inaction. So he's also Lisbeth Salander; I get the impression that the pain she directs against herself, and the rage she screams, are as much his as an attempt at empathetic expression. When Salander becomes Blomkvist's heroine, it may be a personal victory for Larsson.

Fincher's film captures that spirit in some manner, but I never found myself captured by that pain and rage, or by any sense of vindication or salvation. Without a magnetic pull towards the characters I could only look at the movie as a mechanic evaluating a machine. What decisions do Fincher and Zaillian make, and why? I could see a power in their work, but I rarely felt it.

Fincher and Zaillian dismiss some components of the investigative procedural. They present Blomkvist and Salander's process as something akin to what we saw in Zodiac, where most of the work is done in the depths of file archives. Zodiac is a much better movie, and also a more tiring one, but that is by design — we're meant in some measure to be as exhausted as the characters. Dragon Tattoo is not as tiring, but it also has few moments of elation or discovery. Because subplots have been stripped away or minimized (flashbacks seen in the original film are gone, for example) there isn't even much of a mystery at hand.

This isn't a whodunnit so much as a 'why would anyone do that?' The mystery in Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn't really who the killer might be, but why that person kills. Not only that, but why does Lisbeth Salander's vengeance take the shape that it does, despite her suffering a lifetime's worth of abuse in mere decades of existence? Why might she turn out one way, while another victim of abuse turns into a wholly different person? There are no revealing answers, perhaps in part because with all that plot, there is no time left to think.

With time given to so many of Blomkvist's personal concerns, the most that Dragon Tattoo gets around to saying about violence against women is "that's awful." Which isn't useless, and in fact is more than we usually get. So I shouldn't complain. It's really what all versions of this story are, at the core. But I'd hoped Zaillian and Fincher might have plumbed the depths of a violent spirit to a greater degree.

Daniel Craig's patient, curious work is balanced by an unexpected vulnerability that makes his Blomkvist into a good compliment to Salander. Despite being the prime mover for a good portion of the story, however, he still feels like a bystander.

Salander is the focus, and Mara the star. She swims through the film like a deep-water fish that evolution ignored. Impossible to look away from, she's all huge eyes, pale brow, sculpted hair, and strategic piercings. Her effect on the film is substantial. She is isolated and controlled and as emotionless as she can possibly be, and the movie very much follows suit. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is often the only thing that lets us really get inside Lisbeth's head. David Fincher stays at arm's reach, and watching even the film's most horrifying moments I felt more like an investigator than a vicarious participant. Given the nature of those moments I suppose I should be thankful for that.

/Film score: 6 out of 10