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