Though I’m far less enamored with the bulk of his filmography than most, I completely understand the logic in choosing David Fincher to preside over the American studio film adaption of Stieg Larsson’s stunningly successful novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director has previously shown a facility, even a fascination with the darkest dredges of human souls and with Zodiac, which I maintain is the finest films he’s ever made, he crisply, perfectly handled the sort of barrage of information required to convey the story of two investigators, somewhat unlikely collaborators, who try to unearth the most shadowy secrets of a Swedish family with a tragically tangled history. To be effective, the film arguably needs to be equal parts grim and chilly, qualities Fincher brings to his work with the same level of second-nature comfort Spielberg has when he slices some dazzling, dancing light across the screen.
How bizarre then that Fincher practically gets lost in the film, bringing the most anonymous approach I’ve seen in any of his films, good or bad, outside of Panic Room, and that at least had enough annoying trick shots to offer reminders of exactly who was giving orders about how the camera should move through the scene. To be fair, Fincher still knows how to compose a shot, but there’s no passion to the filmmaking, nothing probing about his efforts. He directs like a man who lost interest in the project almost as soon as he accepted it. Larsson’s story is covered in a heavy quilt of lurid complexities, but surprisingly little force of that comes through in this new film version, surely less than director Niels Arden Oplev brought to bear in the earlier Swedish adaptation. Considering how frank Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are in their presentation of the harshest material, it’s almost mysterious how tepid the sense of dread is in the film.
Instead, it’s merely perfunctory, treading through the various plot points with a notable efficiency. It could even be called brisk given that its runtime of over two-and-a-half hours never feels especially burdensome. It doesn’t feel long, it just is long, and “just is” remains the operative term in almost every respect. The casting is well-chosen, the settings properly considered, every one of the technical aspects of the film presents with sterling assurance. It simply doesn’t add up to anything. Moving the setting from Sweden would have been considered heresy to the legions that love the original book, but the resulting film is so arid and plain that it might as well be taking place in the middle of some bare Arizona desert.
Part of the problem is that the film’s central relationship has no heft to it, no discernible chemistry between the actors in those roles. Daniel Craig has the glower, intensity and aggravated intelligence to play journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but he never properly captures the sense of danger and desperation that gives the character a sense of consequence to the endeavors he’s taken on. More troubling is the lack of connection he has with Rooney Mara as wild child investigative genius Lisbeth Salander, all the more regrettable because she is flatly sensational in the role. Mara develops tremendous personality in the character by paradoxically stripping away any vestiges of outward character. She delves into the character’s freakish nature and precisely show the ways in which burdensome armor is thrown up against a society that she views with the sort of rage that can only come from a lifetime of betrayal. Mara is deeply insular in her performance, finding crafty ways to open up throughout.
Lisbeth is a daunting puzzle that begs to be solved through the promise that such a task is all but impossible to achieve. The chief problem is that neither the man who calls her a partner onscreen or the one that takes her as his subject while he sits in the director’s chair seems to believe that. They’re baffled but not intrigued, and that addled disinterest washes over the entirety of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.