Full disclosure: I have not read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or seen the original Danish film starring Noomi Rapace. Once David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) signed on to direct the American version, I avoided the material on purpose. Jingoistic? Maybe, but Fincher is one of my favorites — an iconoclastic filmmaker with rough edges unsanded by corporate Hollywood, who manages to leave indelible fingerprints on everything he touches — and I wanted to go into his Dragon Tattoo a blank slate. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sure why the director signed up in the first place.
That’s not a knock on the movie, which is slick and oppressive — an enthralling mystery with enough depraved shock and awe to keep even the most jaded audience enraptured. But Dragon Tattoo is also a fairly standard melodrama that uses extreme subject matter (serial killers, ex-Nazis and anal rape, oh my!) to obscure the fact that the story wouldn’t be that out of place on Cold Case or Law and Order: SVU. And “standard” is not a word that usually pops to mind when discussing the work of David Fincher.
I’ll spare you the full plot summary, since interested parties probably already know it by heart. (This is, after all, the third go-around for Salander and friends, after the book and 2009 film.) Here’s the short version: Dragon Tattoo starts by following the parallel stories of Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced writer and magazine publisher hired by a rich aristocrat (Christopher Plummer) to look into a family tragedy from the 1960s; and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a socially retarded, Gothed-out ward of the state who’s also an ace investigator, computer hacker and Taser marksman. Their stories dovetail after a while, with the unlikely pair joining forces to hunt a serial killer (among other activities).
It’s no mystery why Dragon Tattoo has been such an international smash. This is pulp fiction at its finest, full of twisted, engaging characters, dark situations, and atmosphere to spare. Fans will be curious how Craig and Mara handle roles that have become etched into readers' imaginations. I can’t speak to Rapace vs. Mara, etc., but I thought both lead actors killed it, with Craig playing against type (Blomqvist is no Bondian man of action) and Mara practically disfiguring herself and retreating behind a wall of hard stares and clipped sentences. Shower them with awards, please.
In the end, Fincher’s adaptation of Dragon Tattoo has much in common with the titular piece of body art: Both are dark, compelling and beautiful — but that beauty is only skin deep.