The opening title sequence to David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo could be an outtake from a James Bond movie. The liquid black effigies of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara melt together in an oily dance, oozing not just a suggestive sexuality but a slick expense that 2009’s Swedish language version couldn’t have hoped to emulate.
It’s a reminder of Fincher’s past as a director of music videos and as openings go, it’s one of this year’s best, but it soon settles down into the well-trodden path of a locked-room mystery.
Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a recently disgraced investigative journalist who’s just been sued into the ground after a well-publicised libel case. He’s contacted by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the head of the wealthy and powerful industrial family with a Nazi past to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet nearly 40 years ago who he believes was murdered.
Craig downplays his role – unshaven, wearing flannel pyjama bottom, glasses and a cardigan, he’s about as far from Bond as you can imagine and although there are shades of 007’s musculature which shine through, he’s an effective everyman. That’s a reflection of Fincher’s restraint as any overstatement could have tipped Drag Tats into the realms of the ridiculous.
If Craig is the straight man, then it’s Rooney Mara that delivers the meaty goodness, an electrifying performance as Lisbeth Salander. Everything about her is spiky, from her brusque minimalist conversation to her cybergoth dress sense – asymmetrical haircut, numerous facial piercings, black clothing. It’s initially hard to tell her age and sometimes even her gender; in some shots she could pass for a surly 15-year-old boy, in others she looks like an underage girl. Mara is simply brilliant; an intense fury lies simmering behind masked cold detachment and she steals every scene she’s in.
That she’s a metaphor for the misfits and the malcontents is obvious enough. Her brutal rape at the hands of her legal guardian is as blatant a visual representation of institutionalised sexism and sexual aggression inherent in society as you’re likely to see (only Black Swan offers heavier-handed metaphor).
What requires a bit more thought is Lisbeth’s revenge, in which she repays her abuser in kind – raping him as retribution for his actions. It makes for dramatic cinema but its underlying message, that sexual violence is best repaid with sexual violence (something which the film a points out is a common cause of abuse in the first place) – is a curious one. Should we as an audience be encouraged to cheer on the perpetuation of such a cycle?
Contrast this to Daniel Craig’s quiet patient journalist, who struggles to do the right thing through official channels to no avail. It’s Lisbeth’s unorthodox approach that gets things done. That’s all very well for mainstream fodder, but from Fincher who you’d expect would analyse the murky depths of such a subject in more depth, it’s a disappointingly monochromatic viewpoint.
Social commentary aside, it’s also let down by a plot which could have been lifted from a TV police drama or a modern adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. That’s probably in part due to the original pulpy quality of the source material but even so, in places, the script is thuddingly expositive – the big bad gloats over his kills like a sub-standard Bond villain complete with an almost hilariously overdone “lair” and it features an ending revelation which is easy to guess from the outset.
There’s also an overlong epilogue which leaves the door open to the inevitable sequels but also feels tacked on, like a final page of script stapled on to the main bulk as an afterthought. It certainly lacks the tautness of pace that’s so prominent through the rest of the running time.
These sound like much bigger gripes than they actually are. Taken at face value, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a slickly made thriller with some memorably excellent performances and a chillingly haunting soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who also collaborated with Fincher on the similarly stylised The Social Network). Crude moral rationalisations aside, it’s still a reminder that David Fincher’s one of the most powerfully precise directors working today.