Spoiler Level: Low
I should begin by saying that I went into David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo completely cold. I am one of what is apparently no more than a handful of people worldwide who have not read Stieg Larrson's 2005 novel (published in English under this same title, but originally published in Sweden as Män som hatar kvinnor, or "Men who hate women"). Nor have I seen the 2009 Swedish film version of Män som hatar kvinnor, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. I was, in short, aware that there was this phenomenon surrounding this novel (and its sequels), but knew virtually nothing about the characters or plot.
I now will read the books and see the other adaptation, because now I know what all the fuss is all about. The fuss, in short, is about a character named Lisbeth Salander, brought to life in Fincher's version via a stunning, star-making performance by Rooney Mara (previously best known for her small but memorable role in Fincher's The Social Network). Brilliant, complicated, damaged and indomitable, Salander invites oxymoronic descriptions: she has a misanthropic compassion, an off-putting allure, a fragile self-possession. Mysteries live or die with their detectives, and while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a stylish, cookie-cutter crime drama, Lisbeth Salander—at least as portrayed by Rooney Mara—is something immeasurably more: fascinating, undefinable, and unforgettable, she's one of the first great film characters of the 21st century.
I suppose one could argue (though not convincingly) that the real detective hero of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). It is Blomkvist, after all, who—like Philip Marlowe, Jeffrey Lebowski, and countless other detectives—receives the traditional summons from a reclusive millionaire, in this case Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Henrik is haunted by a 40-year-old mystery: the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet (played in flashbacks by Moa Garpendal). Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, has fallen into disgrace following a libel suit brought against him by a businessman named Wennerström, and Henrik offers to give him evidence against Wennerström in return for finding Harriet's murderer.
David Fincher proved in Seven and Zodiac that he excels at this kind of dark, obsessive procedural, and here he succeeds in bringing sustained tension and visual excitement to an investigation that largely takes place through dusty files, faded photographs, and bulletin-board pushpins. (I particularly like the scene in which Blomkvist assembles still photographs from several sources to put together what becomes almost a flip book movie of a crucial event.) Blomkvist is a likable, engaging protagonist, and Craig proves once again that he is an interesting character-actor trapped in a ridiculously handsome leading man's body. But the film doesn't really come alive until Blomkvist hires Salander as his "research assistant"—though, in reality, what he becomes is the Watson to her Holmes—and the two begin discovering that Harriet's death may just be the outlier in a circle of missing and murdered women that surrounds the Vanger family.
The resulting detective story—which clocks in at a slightly bloated 2 hours and 40 minutes—is an all-too conventional serial-killer hunt, which proceeds entertainingly enough but sadly leads nowhere new. We have seen the twisted family history, the cryptic Biblical clues, and the underground torture chamber far too many times, and we've heard far too many villains deliver self-congratulatory monologues about their thin motives and kinky methods. Though finely executed by all concerned, this plot, in and of itself, would not seem worthy of Fincher's stark, darkly bleak visuals (photographed by his frequent collaborator Jeff Cronenweth), nor of the extraordinary cast he has assembled (which includes Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, and Geraldine James).
So the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—adapted by Steven Zaillian—is fairly standard fare: what elevates it above its all-too-familiar elements is the character of Lisbeth Salander. (This is not necessarily a criticism: the same thing could be said about stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or James Bond. Salander, like those heroes and their kind, is a bit of a fantasy-figure super-hero, capable of solving nearly every problem because her brain operates on a higher level than most of ours. Also in common with those heroes, she's a little alien, a little distant, and more than a little prickly, isolated by her own genius in a way that often seems to border on an almost austistic sociopathy.)
Unlike those other larger-than-life heroes, however, Lisbeth Salander is painfully, endearingly human. Lisbeth, we are told, only takes cases that interest her, and what interests her most is men who prey on women. A ward of the state (for reasons the movie does not completely explain), with a history of violence, Salander has obviously been through such emotional and physical abuse that she has decided on this mission, and created a tough, emotionally autonomous identity for herself. We see Lisbeth suffer one indescribably vicious assault at the hands of a man who is supposed to be looking out for her; we also see her enact her elaborate, proportionate revenge on the man. (Personally, I found both scenes a little leering and lurid—a fantasy of female victimization and retribution that only a man could write—but, as it does throughout the film, the integrity of Mara's heartbreaking, fascinating performance rises light-years above the material.)
I have seen criticisms of Fincher and Mara's portrayal of a character in whom millions are obviously invested, most notably this interesting article by Monika Bartyzel at www.movies.com, who argues that Salander is "sexualized, softened, romanticized, and less empowered" in this film version. As I've said, I can't compare Mara's Lisbeth with any other, and so—while I respect Bartyzel's argument, and will bear it in mind as I read the book—I can only react to the Lisbeth I know, and I find her amazing. Yes, Mara layers a softer humanity beneath the defensive power and self-possession, but for me those moments are evidence of Salander's strength, not a denial of it: neither a damage-hardened victim nor an avenging angel, Mara makes Lisbeth a strong, complex woman, one who can lower her guard—as she eventually does with Blomkvist—without ever surrendering her strange identity or relinquishing one iota of her power. I do not see her, as Bartyzel does, as either a "femme fatale" or as a "romantic figure"—the classic tropes don't apply. She is something new, a 21st-century hero, alienated and unique but wonderfully, magnificently human.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far from a masterpiece, though it's an entertaining ride and a fine enough example of cinematic craftsmanship. There is true greatness, however, to be found in the layered integrity of Rooney Mara's performance, which exists on another level than the film that contains it. Fierce, fearless, and unforgettable, Mara's creation is an unarguable triumph.