Review by Ryan Wilson

Trilogy by the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. But if I’m tardy to the festivities then so is the first of the American film adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This is because there’s already, appropriately, been a well-received Swedish version of the book just two years ago. But let’s just forget about the source material or about the first adaptation, shall we. I propose this because the new Hollywood version is a David Fincher film and therefore deserves its own separate set of standards.

Fincher has earned this because of his highly stylized resume. From Alien 3 to Fight Club to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button his vision has been among the most distinctive among American filmmakers. His use of minimum autumnal light, heavy shadow and quick editing distinguishes him as perhaps the most formalistic Hollywood director since Orson Welles. If that comparison feels like hyperbole to you, just consider that Fincher, like Welles, tends to gravitate to Film Noir material like Se7en and Zodiac. But his biggest mainstream success had to be last year’s The Social Network, where he was able to move beyond Noir to penetrate the technology that potentially corrupts us all.

Fincher is an ideal choice then to helm The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo because those books combine the corruption of technology so well with Noir. As you all probably know by now, the books follow violently anti-social computer hacker Lisbeth Salander down a rabbit hole of grizzly mysteries. Watching Fincher’s first film in the series feels like those Social Network kids have been grinded in a blender by the Kevin Spacey villain of Se7en.

Fincher expertly uses parallel editing to divide the film. The first tale belongs to Daniel Craig, a disgraced journalist who takes a job from a wealthy industrialist to investigate a family disappearance. The second tale belongs to hacker Lisbeth, played wonderfully jagged by Rooney Mara, whose personal history we see as disturbing as possible. Eventually these two tales collide to solve (a bit too easily) the family atrocity but also to ask interesting questions about how atrocity defines one’s character.

And here it’s important to pause and say that the film is really less about atrocity and more about living with pain, which is why Lisbeth Salander is its most fascinating figure. However, there is a major problem with how Lisbeth unfolds to us. We’re first introduced to her as a wunderkind woman of information, an overly capable youth. But then we see her sexually victimized in the worst way by her social worker in exchange for money for food and rent. These two Lisbeths don’t seem to reconcile well with each other. How can someone smart and capable enough to bring down the most powerful men also let herself be debased by a middle-management underling?

Fincher lingers on Lisbeth’s debasement to an uncomfortable degree, perhaps to show us just how vulnerable she is even with her hyper-intellect. It’s also impossible to forget just what she’s gone through when later we see her capably save the day in heroic fashion. And this is perhaps the theme of the film, that nothing we go through is ever completely put away or offered closure.

This theme no doubt appeals to the subculture overtly popular throughout Stieg Larsson’s films and books. Much has been made of Lisbeth’s appearance, her spiky hair, aforementioned tattoos and opulent piercings. Yet her visual appearance is too easily dismissed as mere subculture. As we watch Lisbeth move from club kid to power-player, her personal aesthetic becomes less of a fashion statement and more of her choice to externalize the scars of her past, which is probably the whole point behind the industrial music movement that reflects Lisbeth’s character.

Fittingly, the Godfather of that movement, Trent Reznor scores the soundtrack to the film, and the opening credits unfold like a Nine Inch Nails video from the 1990s. Upon first viewing, these slick James Bond-like oily visuals feels forced, but as we see Lisbeth expand before us, the opening visuals seem to represent her perception.

Ironically, Fincher chooses to end his film quietly, with Lisbeth reflecting on her complicated relationship with Daniel Craig’s much more mainstream journalist. The last frame of the film is as poetically alone as one can get, and yet it’s a beautiful moment of isolation, one that everyone, misfit or not, can respect and relate to. Fincher’s girl may be late to the dance, but the music is still playing.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012