A literary phenomenon that has swept the globe, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo arrives on the big screen courtesy of director David Fincher and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian. The result is a sturdily scripted, assuredly directed thriller that gradually lures us into a labyrinthine mystery involving a discredited journalist, a cryptic computer hacker, and a wealthy family harboring some particularly dark secrets. Notably absent outside of the visually striking (yet somewhat inexplicable) black-drenched credit sequence set to Trent Reznor and Karen O's pulsing version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," however, is the dynamic and innovative visual style that has defined much of Fincher's finest work.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a highly publicized court battle against powerful entrepreneur Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) when he is summoned to the remote island estate of aging businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who makes him a most-unusual proposition. Forty years ago, Henrik's beloved great-niece Harriet vanished without a trace. Henrik is convinced that someone in his family -- where greed and Nazism run rampant -- has gotten away with murder, and despite the firestorm of controversy over Blomkvist's credibility, he's certain that the seasoned reporter can root out the killer. Meanwhile, as Blomkvist submerses himself in a mystery decades in the making, misfit computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) finds her violent past returning with a vengeance thanks to her twisted new parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen). Before long, Blomkvist and Salander are working together as a team to investigate the Vanger family, who all live on the same island yet display an indifference to one another that often spills over into outright animosity. But with each new clue that Blomkvist and Salander uncover, the more apparent it becomes that Harriet's disappearance may in fact lead them directly into an even darker mystery.
In Seven and Zodiac, Fincher used masterful pacing, atmospheric cinematography, and acute attention to detail to seduce us into grim worlds of murder and obsession. Those familiar themes are still very much propelling factors in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though this time Fincher comes off as much more restrained than usual. It's unclear whether that's a result of his not being as emotionally invested in the material or simply recognizing the need to get out of the way of a good story, but by reteaming with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Social Network), Fincher still gives The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo an exquisitely chilly visual scheme that provides a palpable sense of atmosphere while holding the audience at arm's length. It's a good match for a such a pulpy mystery, though a little of the director's trademark inventiveness could have gone a long way in not only distinguishing Fincher's take on the story from the previously filmed Swedish-language version, but also in helping to connect the dots of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's somewhat contrived storyline.
An astonishing blend of dark allure and damaged brilliance, Mara is compulsively watchable as Lisbeth Salander, while Craig effectively embodies quiet integrity as the humiliated reporter fleeing the limelight while sharpening his investigatory skills. Compelling as both characters are, however, Fincher's cool direction stunts any attempts to form an emotional connection with them, even when Mikael and his daughter have a gentle conversation about faith, or the scene in which Lisbeth bares her soul to her investigative partner by confessing how she got caught up in the legal system in the first place. And while a scene of shocking violence between Lisbeth and her sadistic parole officer may be off-putting to some, its contextual relevance is all but undeniable once we've learned her darkest secret.
Given the lurid nature of Stieg Larsson's story, it's easy to see why Fincher would be compelled to adapt it for the big screen. But it's impossible not to feel like we've been down this road numerous times with the director before. In The Social Network, it felt as if Fincher were truly growing as a filmmaker both thematically and stylistically. Despite being a solid mystery assuredly told, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like something of a regression -- one that's largely absent of the factors that established him as one of his generation's most innovative filmmakers.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on AllMovie
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)