Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

***originally written 30 December 2011***

If David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo achieves anything that Niels Arden Oplev’s movie doesn’t, it will hopefully be selling the idea to the rest of Hollywood that there is an audience for thoughtful, intelligent adult-orientated cinema again. With the critical and commercial success of Drive, and following a decade of dumbing down and compromise, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo may be the most popularist 18 certificate movie since American Beauty back in 1999. That’s about where the similarities end, mind.

Of course, it helps to have a mass-selling vehicle like the Millennium trilogy behind you to catch the magpie glint in Hollywood’s eye, but Fincher’s movie may be our way back to the kind of serious, thrilling movie-making that’s been abandoned in Tinseltown in favour of interchangeable men in spandex jumping up and down on top of buildings. But what of the movie itself?

As someone who counts himself as a David Fincher fan, it strikes me that there aren’t many of his movies that I count as actually great. Two, in fact. Se7en and Zodiac are both five-star bone fide masterpieces, the latter one of the great unsung films of the past decade. What’s more problematic is that, personally, Fincher’s work since has been his worst; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a turgid experience, and the less said about the frankly fuck-awful The Social Network the better (yeah, I know, I’m pretty much on my own there). But even when he’s not firing on all cylinders, Fincher’s work has the ability to impress through the sheer mastery of the art. The man makes movies that look simply beautiful. Even if there’s no substance, you can bet there’s going to be plenty of style.

So whilst I personally wish a director of his abilities had chosen to do something other than a remake, its doubtful any other A-list name in Hollywood could have realised this picture. This is the stuff of classic Fincher; a dark, dour story about obsession and insatiable investigation, rife with problematic heroes and more than a fair share of downright despicable characters. Fincher eats this stuff for breakfast.

Well… it’s his best movie since Zodiac, which is good news. Problem is it’s still not great. Whilst the story zips along at an admirable pace – and there’s a lot to cram into 2 hours and 40 minutes – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo version 2.0 lives in a strange paradox. A paradox in which everything is so hurried that it all feels rather sketchy, and yet the movie as a whole feels extremely flabby. With perhaps a little more focus, and a little shrewder editing of the sprawling plot, the same story could be told with at least 30 minutes missing.

In fairness, the biggest problems that Fincher’s movie suffers from are the same as the ones that blighted Opley’s. Whilst the character of Lisbeth is fantastic, the overall story is, well, tiresome. Maybe it’s arrived too soon on the heels of its predecessor, but the impression given is of an unsatisfying whodunit bracketed by an even more mind-numbing legal case. Familiarity may have bred contempt. Fincher fumbles both plots a little. The resolution of either seems to matter little.

But let’s get back to the positives. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is every bit as fascinating as Noomi Rapace’s incarnation. To say she’s a little more tender, a little more fragile, would be a misdirection. When pushed, she’s just as vicious. A deadly, brilliant creation shot through with complex emotion and rich detail. One of modern cinema’s – and modern literature’s – best female characters. Anyone concerned that Mara was not up to the challenge can rest assured. If there’s any justice there’s an Oscar nod in this for her.

Also of note is Stellan Skarsgard. He probably won’t get much notice, his quiet performance eclipsed by the film’s more sensational elements, but his is the other piece of acting most likely to stick in your mind once the credits have rolled. You’ll certainly never listen to Enya the same way again. Daniel Craig is good enough. He makes Blomkvist a solid, likeable investigative lead, despite never seeming to quite know how to wear a pair of glasses, and of course being the only one in the picture who hasn’t realised where he’s supposed to be from.

And there are some great things in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. As per usual, when Fincher gets his characters enthralled in something it pays off with some bravura film making. And the cross-cutting between our two leads following their own avenues of investigation is marvellous, recalling the spirals of obsession in Zodiac. So too is the dungeon scene; one which distinctly improves on Opley’s picture. This is immediately followed by the film’s true grace moment; Lisbeth asking – for the only time – someone’s permission to do something. It’s a delicious, delicate moment of mutual respect and love. And, considering what she’s asking to do, appropriately twisted.

However there are other minus points to mention also. Trent Reznor’s score is frequently intrusive and irritating, the final 25 minutes are interminable (despite the bittersweet relationship that has grown between Lisbeth and Blomvkist), whilst the movie opens with quite-possibly the most off-putting, ham-fisted, plain bad title sequence in memory. Thank fuck it got better than that. It’s just a shame it didn’t get better enough. Given how recently Opleys movie was released is there enough here to justify such a lengthy do-over? What has Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo achieved? I honestly can’t figure that out.

Score:  2.5

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