I’m a bit perplexed by the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of those “astonishing bestsellers” that ends up playing like every other airport potboiler from the past 30 years. The late author Stieg Larssen invested it with plenty of personal experience, but he couldn’t assemble his various ideas into an organic story. He benefited from an intriguing main character – at least before she descended into chronic Mary Sue-dom – and some clever mystery elements, but the tale remained a real mess. A Swedish film version brought both the good and the bad to the big screen, and now the inevitable Hollywood rendition – featuring slick production values and none of those scary subtitles to frighten off the public – attempts a second repackaging.
Does it work? Sort of. The big studio machine cleans up some of Larssen’s lingering plot difficulties, and director David Fincher gives it a sleek look to mirror the darkness of its soul. He’s well suited to the material and makes the tale his own without surrendering any of Larssen’s essence. (He also gives it one of the two best opening sequences of the year; strange that the other one – The Adventures of Tintin – opens just a day later.) But even he can’t overcome the tale’s structural deficits, and the third act completely defeats him as he struggles to bring it all to a conclusion.
Dragon Tattoo encompasses three loosely related threads. Uber-hacker Lsabeth Salander (Rooney Mara) responds to the brutal sexism of the men around her while fighting her way free of a traumatic past. Ace reporter Mikael Blomqvist suffers a legal drubbing at the hands of his corporate nemesis and needs to clear his name. And a well-do-do family patriarch (Christopher Plummer) eventually tasks them both to find the answers to a forty-year-old disappearance. Their path winds through the family’s Nazi past, odious present and declining future: uncovering sinister secrets at every turn.
The mystery itself scores the biggest points, tying Silence of the Lambs-style serial killing with some rather brilliant clues leading our heroes to the murderer. Fincher serves it up with his typical cocktail of elegant shadows and oily pools of light, while Trent Reznor’s awesome score hammers home the Industrial Goth. If the film could get by on looks alone it would soar, especially when Mara enters the mix. Pale and skeletal with watery eyes that sear right through you, her Lisbeth is less an occupant of this world than its living embodiment: channeling her anger and pain into fearsome acts of feminist revenge at every turn.
Sadly, that icing can’t disguise the disjointed structure beneath, nor the way different story elements collide into each other rather than playing nice like they should. Salander and Blomqvist seemingly occupy different movies for the first hour, coming together only once her subplot is more or less resolved. They carry the middle third admirably, then stumble apart again after the main fireworks have passed: dancing their way around awkward narrative shards and trying to wrap things up without lacerating themselves.
Dragon Tattoo suffers from other flaws as well. Some are conceptual (Blomqvist’s status as author surrogate becomes decidedly creepy once Salander starts making doe eyes at him); others are technical (when a name actor spends most of the movie wandering around doing nothing, warning flags tend to go off). But all of them tangle its better elements to prevent them from moving forward. The final act seals the deal: the movie doesn’t end so much as stop, saving things for the presumed sequels that may or may not come to light. It leaves a bad taste on an already difficult package, as we contemplate a studio once again counting its chickens before they hatch. Dragon Tattoo offers a handsome package built on rickety foundations, hoping to pass inspection on good looks alone. It comes close at times, but it still leaves us wondering what all the fuss is about.