The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Miguel Penabella | 4 January 2012
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Dir. David Fincher, 2011
Not long into David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the introverted, often belligerent hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) prepares a meal of Ramen noodles and Coca-Cola under the director’s investigative eye. Later into the film, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) pores over a cluttered desk of notes, photographs, and journals with the same meticulous observation from Fincher’s camera that slowly documents every single step of a sequence to obsessive detail. Much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo plays out with such zealous appreciation for the tiniest of particulars, possessing an expansive running time of 160 minutes full of minute, seemingly irrelevant details despite writer Steve Zaillian’s streamlining of its source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s massive 2005 novel. From Zaillian’s script, Fincher translates drama into sequential data, striving to answer the film’s premise of a serial killer mystery in terms of how and in what way rather than the stereotypical why. Like his 2007 wonder Zodiac, Fincher takes precedence over the investigative process rather than the motives and solution, hypnotically luring audiences in with his wintry atmospherics and measured, careful direction.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s labor of love following his masterwork in 2010’s acclaimed The Social Network, so it’s not surprising that this movie picks up on very similar themes right where the last left off. Fincher continues the 2010 movie’s interpersonal, rapid-fire dialogue and acknowledgment of the digital age’s omnipresent takeover, even connecting Salander to The Social Network’s own apathetic hacker punk Mark Zuckerberg in terms of characterization (cold and aloof) and visual cues (close-ups of fingers typing away). Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also channels Se7en’s religion-impelled violence and the enraptured, methodical whodunit setup of Zodiac, complete with a crawling pace and characters just as fixated in seeking answers as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. And contrary to the masses of popular belief on the blogosphere and beyond, Fincher’s movie isn’t a remake of the 2009 Swedish film but an adaptation of Larsson’s novel, completely avoiding any similarity with Arden Oplev’s inferior work. Instead, he corrects it, commendably placing the importance of characters over the largely nominal serial killer plot, and readily combatting those vague complaints of the film as “American-ized,” Fincher’s skilled handling of the source material leaves barely a trace of cheap Hollywood theatrics. Instead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tightly disciplined film made by adults for adults, whose aesthetic and storytelling rigor resides less in its source material than in the delicate channeling of all the forces involved under the hands of a sophisticated contemporary director.
As in Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, the aesthetic and thematic consistencies give no doubt as to who’s in control here. David Fincher presents his usual investment in stories tinged with sadism, murder, and sexualized violence, depicting human cruelty and butchery with little heed into the impulses and motivations behind these simply because Fincher acknowledges that the present circumstances are more convoluted than the banal horrors that prompt it. Stieg Larsson’s novels, though attention-grabbing distractions upon first read, are nonetheless pulpy trade paperbacks when critically dissected. The sincerity and passion behind the so-called Millennium (named after the fictional magazine firm the ties the books together) trilogy’s story is apparent because of the motivations behind it. The first novel, originally titled Men Who Hate Women, calls attention to Sweden’s disquieting history of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a particularly personal story to Larsson after having helplessly witnessing a gang rape as a teenager. Furthermore, the book also addresses issues with faulty investigative journalism and Sweden’s extreme right-wing government, two factors that directly tie in to Larsson’s hiding over his risky investigative reporting. Despite these motivations, the actual story remains hackneyed bestseller material, featuring Nazis, religious fanaticism, sex, and whodunit contrivances without a whole lot of depth. Even pretensions to feminism in the Millennium series through the lead character Lisbeth Salander’s actions remains faulty, as women are ultimately relegated as mesmeric ciphers to be investigated from a singularly male point of view, i.e. Larsson.
David Fincher and Steve Zaillian avoid the hindrances that tarnish both Larsson’s original novel and Oplev’s Swedish film through the sheer quantity of details present throughout the film, committing its plot on the actual investigative process rather than a cheap, cathartic solution. In this snowy, moody vision of Sweden, aging industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires the recently censured journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) to solve a forty-year-old mystery concerning the disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger. Convinced that a close relative murdered Harriet because of an annual presentation of flowers by mail on his birthday (a heartless throwback to Harriet’s own birthday tradition), Blomkvist sets off on the case. Vanger’s promise of compensation of damning intelligence on the corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, the man whom Blomkvist lost all credibility to after losing a libel case, ultimately drives the downtrodden journalist. Meanwhile, independent researcher and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara) receives a new legal guardian after her previous one suffered a disastrous stroke in the form of the burly Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a manipulative figure who violently takes advantage of Salander’s physical frailty.
After Salander eventually takes her brutal revenge on her rapist guardian however, she is employed by Blomkvist (whose background check was done by her) as a researcher, and together they slowly pick apart at the cryptic puzzle laid out before them. All in all, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo essentially becomes the pristine example of Fincher at his most familiar. The blizzards of Hedestad, Sweden, and the moody color palette reflect the filmmaker’s own depiction of coldblooded characters existing in the snowy locale, and Jeff Cronenweth’s crystalline cinematography with the RED digital camera gives the picture an atmospheric, somber quality. When Blomkvist initially steps out of the train for the first time unto the wintry Hedestad, it’s as if he steps unto a whole other planet of icy, desolate landscapes where everything is obscured by snow. Most directors lack Fincher’s unrivaled mastery at enhancing mood through lighting and color tone, but the director’s dichotomy between freezing, lifeless exteriors and the warm, golden interiors augmented with base lighting setups add visual substance and texture to the picture. The sleek, minimalist Swedish architecture further adds a level of emptiness when paired with the frigid cold outside, especially when populated with the dispassionate Vanger family whose innate treachery Blomkvist slowly unravels.
Everyone speaks in accented English with occasional bouts of Swedish thrown in for good measure, as well as newspaper clippings and advertisements completely in the foreign language. But despite the remote locale, David Fincher grounds The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in familiar territory, employing his usual short-term quick cuts and long-term protracted pacing to keep the 160-minute film drawn out, but constantly moving and never tedious. Even the golden-tinged aesthetic returns from The Social Network, here used as demarcations of flashbacks bathed in Fincher’s heavenly buttery light. In terms of overall visual style, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drifts towards Zodiac’s obsessive eye for detail than The Social Network’s moody lighting, with Fincher passionately logging every tiny action in the film to break down each and every scene and deconstruct each character. Take, for example, the aforementioned scene recording Salander preparing a bowl of Ramen noodles. In the hands of most filmmakers, the scene would probably serve as a mere stylistic quirk with little penetration into the character, but time and time again, Fincher meticulously logs the minutest aspects: a McDonald’s happy meal here, a vending machine stint there, a cup of coffee and pack of cigarettes here, and yet another close-up of incidental objects once again. Fincher’s choice of framing small objects is absolutely fascinating; with his use of static shots, creeping dollies, and quick cuts, he allows meticulous detail to be mesmerizing rather than monotonously unremarkable.
Ultimately, these sequences of characters going through each and every step in a process mirrors the movie’s own exploration into investigative study and painstaking crime-solving. From the sprawling epilogue in which Salander undergoes one final heist singlehandedly to the thorough process of piecing together all the family members in Hedestad, Fincher details everything as he does in Zodiac, shifting to his obsession for a narrative that loses its objective—cathartic resolution as expected from Larsson’s novel—and the hunt itself becoming the end result. Fincher’s distinctive style further reveals itself through the opening title sequence of the film, a pulsating mass of black tar set to Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that molds into barely perceptible shapes like a James Bond intro from hell: writhing bodies, fists, wasps (a tattoo of Salander’s), blooming flowers, intertwining computer cables, shattering faces. The sequence not only recalls the playfully dark titles of Se7en and Fight Club (the former set to music from Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails), but also provides a glimpse at Salander’s own subconscious (the presence of fire here plays a key role in, you guessed it, The Girl Who Played with Fire) and hints at thematic elements of the film. If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about anything, these fragmentary images shown in the first few minutes of the film offer visual cues on the potential for technological advance to ruin us all. Computer cables ensnare bodies like snakes, suggesting not only the all-pervasiveness of technology in the digital age but also how these tools will eventually lead to violence and destruction later on in the film. Fincher connects his images with his characters and plot, revealing Salander’s tattoos coming to life and the image of a fist shattering a woman’s face like a vase, linking the image to the misogynistic violence of Bjurman and others.
The connections The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes during the opening titles between sexualized violence and its characters arrive later on in the film after the lengthy introduction of Mikael Blomkvist and Millennium magazine. Fincher focuses on Blomkvist fixatedly, documenting his smoking habits, wanderings, purchases, and romantic life with co-worker Erika Berger (Robin Wright) to thoroughly unpack his character inside out. Daniel Craig returns to form after the James Bond hiatus and his unfortunate stints in this year’s Dream House and Cowboys and Aliens, maintaining a veneer of cool levelheadedness and rationality that reminds audiences how Craig can effortlessly exude his natural swagger, a factor that undeniably points to the reasoning behind his role as the titular James Bond. Fincher also makes the shrewd change from the Swedish film and novel in downplaying Blomkvist’s hyperactive sex life with multiple female characters throughout the story, instead grounding him as a composed, disciplined character rather than allowing Craig to don his usual Bond pretense. Nevertheless, it isn’t until the stories of Blomkvist and Salander converge that a level of chemistry actually emerges from the numerous characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a narrative aspect that also occurs in Larsson’s own original novel.
When Lisbeth Salander is first introduced, actress Rooney Mara radiates the same calculated, cynical reprimands of her Social Network co-star Jesse Eisenberg, apathetically distancing herself from others while simultaneously demonstrating her own command of the screen. Unlike the slightly muscular frame of Noomi Rapace from the Swedish series, Mara more closely resembles the physically frail description from the novel (“She had simply been born thin, with slender bones that made her look girlish and fine-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four, but she sometimes looked fourteen.” Larsson, 41). Rapace had a more apparent ability to fight back, but Mara’s more noticeable weakness here emphasizes her vulnerability and loneliness despite her ability to occasionally exhibit profound independence and willpower as a troubled human being. Fincher’s decision to cast her as the cipher Lisbeth Salander isn’t surprising because of Rooney Mara’s acting achievement in The Social Network despite being limited largely to that opening five-minute prologue. As Salander, she delivers total role commitment, selling her character’s paradoxical defenselessness and uncontrollable rage with equal measures of bravado. She often averts her eyes in conversation with insecurity or impatience, but during times of duress, Mara’s eyes blaze with monstrous intensity like another creature entirely.
Lisbeth Salander’s “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” t-shirt (an indispensible piece of cinematic apparel like the Driver’s scorpion jacket) promptly signals that Fincher does not tone down her character one bit, instead opting for full characterization as a withdrawn, often belligerent, always unknowable leading figure. Like Zuckerberg, Lisbeth is highly intellectual (having photographic memory and computer expertise), but she never has a solid grasp on personal relations (the film hints at the possibility of Asperger’s syndrome), instead choosing to hack into others’ personal lives as a means of understanding over easy communication. She simplifies all those around her, though she herself could never be abridged so straightforwardly. A lot of her backstory remains undisclosed and cryptic, often insinuated in the briefest of moments (a distant recollection of Salander killing her father, for example, is nonchalantly whispered to Blomkvist towards the end of the film), nicely setting the stage for the following sequels that ultimately flesh out these details. Nevertheless, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does illustrate present-day horrors haunting Salander, namely the briefly aforementioned dealings with her rapist guardian which provide the film’s most unsettling moment.
Much of Fincher’s credibility in translating Larsson’s source material rests on the delicate portrayal of the anal rape scene, a segment of the 2009 Swedish movie that was ominously graphic to begin with. In Fincher’s adaptation, his depiction includes those tiny details so characteristic of the rest of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that the scene isn’t more graphic as it is more disturbing. The camera’s attention to the cold light fixtures and intense close-ups of struggling facial expressions have an increased emotional impact when paired with the filmmaker’s amplification of key sounds – the slow exhalation in sadistic pleasure, the muffled shrieks of fear, the thrashing limbs. The power of the scene attests to Fincher’s controlled discipline in filmmaking, giving us a steady, unflinching camera voyeuristically observing the nauseating events like French filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s equally grueling rape scene in Irréversible. Fincher strips down all unnecessary background, only providing what needs to be seen for full emotional impact. Thus, the natural reaction can only be that of repulsion and an eventual lust for vengeance, similar to Oplev’s work in his 2009 film. Then Fincher gives a vital corrective to the Swedish film/book, punishing our voyeuristic impulse as film audiences for being so manipulated to its sexualized violence. He gives the same rock-steady camera when Salander returns for revenge, leering over every detail as she harrowingly exacts payback through violent anal penetration of Bjurman with some incidental phallic object and an amateur, bloody tattooing of “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on his torso. While the initial rape scene is appalling beyond words, Fincher presents her counter-violence with an emotionlessness that robs her vengeance of its rationality. In the theater, I recall hearing some approving “hmms” during the first few seconds of reprisal, but then a stunned silence when she continues unrelentingly, showing how violence isn’t something to celebrate regardless of context.
It should be made clear, however, that David Fincher distances his characterization of Lisbeth Salander from Larsson’s questionable female empowerment setup (as explained beforehand in this review), deciding his own brand of female authority for the character coinciding with Rooney Mara’s exceptional performance. This auteurial control begins with the highly divisive movie poster depicting Daniel Craig wrapping his arm around a naked Rooney Mara, a promotional piece that has been accused of sexualizing the character on loosely misogynistic grounds. This is an unconvincing view given contextualization with the film’s actual portrayal of the character – Craig isn’t protecting Mara; he’s holding her back and hiding behind her. Fincher reverses the traditional male gaze of feminist philosophy by having Mara not merely look at a viewer but actively stare through the screen and into audience consciousness. Furthermore, claims that Rooney Mara’s frequent nudity sexualizes her character are sexist assumptions that equate a topless woman with an exploited sex object. In contrast, it’s Salander who is always in control, always the sexual initiator in all of her encounters rather than the book’s problematic wish-fulfillment portrayal of Salander and Blomkvist’s romantic relationship. Here, Mara plays Salander’s attraction to Blomkvist with aggression and dominance, an affirmation of control to overshadow her impulsive, deeply psychological feelings that warrant further critical scrutiny.
To those unappeasable critics and fans of the series who claim that Rooney Mara isn’t “assertive” or “badass” enough, David Fincher presents a more admirable characterization of the hacker apart from the commercialized, simplified view of feminist “badassery” like Oplev and Larsson’s handling of the character. Instead, Fincher and Mara present a more believable characterization of a rape victim, portraying an inner stoicism and disciplined control that reflects a withdrawn, interior power. Furthermore, a more sexualized Lisbeth Salander often seen nude actively opposes the arrogant desexualization of female rape victims in both society and cinema. By allowing Salander to fulfill herself sexually after the distressing event on her own terms, Fincher elaborates the character in showing her current emotional and psychological state rather than merely relegating her as an archetypical rape victim bound to inertness. Thus, her relationship with Blomkvist can thrive into true chemistry and mutual dependency. One talked about moment in Fincher’s film in which Salander asks permission from Blomkvist to hunt a man down highlights their reciprocal relationship that they’re in this together, further increasing the emotional impact of the outstanding half hour dénouement of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The concluding action of the film uncovers a greater development of Lisbeth Salander’s internal hurt with the preceding two hours showing the character defensively hiding and restraining these vulnerable feelings (though not enough to clue us in on her innate fragility and emotional deprivation). Nevertheless, Fincher and Mara refuse to deny her vulnerability any longer once the film moves past its window-dressing pulpy mystery plot, with Salander even declaring that “you and Harriet fucking Vanger have kept me pretty busy,” almost implying the sudden character development to come. With the ending that won’t be explicitly spoiled here, Mara convinces audiences of a character deeper beneath the seemingly unfriendly façade, and her reaching out for affection and hollow feeling of sadness afterward remains the single most memorable aspect of the film, a scene that still runs through my mind today. The Swedish version rushes through the ending, but here, Mara’s performance injects more emotional depth to the character than ever before.
There’s a depth to Fincher’s thematic elements not found in either Oplev or Larsson’s material, namely in his depiction of technological pervasiveness throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director has always been interested in the influence of technology on daily life, with his digitally tinged narrative of The Social Network and turn of the millennium Fight Club attesting to his investment in the topic. Here, technology is all encompassing. Characters are defined by their fluidity in computer expertise, with the graceful Salander hacking away at impenetrable encryptions while Blomkvist bumbles about just to maximize a window. Fincher also reminds audience about the ubiquity of technology when Blomkvist first steps unto the frozen landscape of Hedestad, seen spending a long stretch of time aimlessly searching for cellphone reception. Indeed, cellphones serve as vital tools in the film as evidenced in one scene where characters unconsciously reach for their phones when one rings, as if grabbing a gun in self-defense. Communication plays a key role in the film, especially considering its lack thereof during inopportune moments for the various characters. The gap between the technologically driven Salander and the old ways of Blomkvist and Vanger further exposes greater rifts in the digital divide. Blomkvist initially reprimands Salander’s illicit computer hacking as a testament to the degradation of journalistic integrity, but Fincher portrays the character ultimately ceding to her methods not to tie up loose plot points but to make a statement. After forty years of ineffective investigative work, perhaps the only successful way to solve the Vanger case is to yield authority to Salander and what she represents: the latest digital way, like Zuckerberg of the Social Network’s own self-important, though ultimately truthful recognition of changing times.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score touched on these themes of omnipresent digitalization in The Social Network, evident through the pulsating, electronic synths and beats that compliment the film’s visualization of computer wizardry. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the pair return to work with David Fincher, providing a few tracks with their usual synth pulses but focusing more on lengthy, chiming atmospherics that work well with the chilling visuals Fincher portrays. With a total runtime nearly three hours long, the score exceeds the actual film, containing icy, somber sounds and deep piano notes that speak to the lifelessness displayed before us, completely immersing audiences with sounds that replicate cold heartbeats or the biting winter wind. And while drawn-out, ambient noise sprinkled with bits of haunting piano comprise the bulk of the score, Reznor and Ross also provide hard-hitting rumbles and aggressive percussion work that harken back to Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth and Ghosts I-IV. Nevertheless, it’s the cold atmospheric work that the score keeps returning to, connecting picture with sound as characters operate on the screen.
The minimalist, always stylish mise-en-scène Fincher delivers throughout the film is just as sleek and polished as director Christopher Nolan’s (and frequent collaborator Wally Pfister) thanks to the work of the film’s own cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Architecture and set design seeps of contemporary cleanness, but unlike Nolan, Fincher chips away at this elegant beauty (à la Fight Club), showing the grimy underbelly that accompanies scenes of polished exquisiteness. When the protagonists do eventually come across the killer’s hideaway, the tiniest of details speak to Fincher’s strict attention to design as a means of building mood: power tools on a wall, tiny cages stowed away, and other minute details work their way into audience imagination to fill in the gruesome particulars. Fincher even deconstructs the “heavenly” superficiality of the golden luminosity of his flashback scenes, depicting hellish actions of rape, cruelty, and past crimes under his warm, impassive lighting. Ultimately, the seemingly pristine set design and cinematography so masterfully executed by David Fincher throughout his filmography carries an ominously expressionless tone, conveying all the vile immoralities done behind closed doors.
David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dark picture (figuratively and literally), building a distinctly menacing, atmospheric mood throughout its sprawling runtime that no other contemporary director has the capacity to duplicate. Fincher conveys true commitment to his craft with meticulous detail work, resulting in every piece of the picture falling into place flawlessly, whether the sequence consists of an elaborate heist (as in the last half hour) or a simple action of Blomkvist ordering a coffee. Of course, the director’s own obsessions project themselves unto his characters, whose unending drive in the investigative process fragments the self (as in Zodiac or Se7en) amidst the frozen landscape that envelops them. The solution to Harriet Vanger’s disappearance is never particularly overpowering given the surreal and far more interesting process of solving it. Fincher’s foregrounding of his characters over Larsson’s plot remains the saving grace inherent at the film’s core, thus allowing its profound dénouement to ring with pangs of sadness and sympathy for such a cipher of a character, Rooney Mara’s rendition of Lisbeth Salander.