The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is not the worst movie of the year, but it is the most bafflingly bad movie of the year. While Stieg Larsson’s source material is crap on paper - airport reading for people who think they’re above airport reading - the people adapting the novel for US screens are no idiots. Steve Zaillian is a writer of higher class entertainments, a guy who knows what audiences want and how to thrill and move them. David Fincher is one of the great visual stylists of our time, a genius-level director whose skill for building atmosphere is unmatched.
But at two and a half excruciating hours, the American movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is nothing more than lovely looking garbage, a boring trudge through a stupid story and an uninvolving mystery. It is shot well, it is edited nicely enough, but it is a terrible, terrible movie.
A huge part of the problem comes from Zaillian’s script, which insists on being completely faithful to Larsson’s moron novel. The first act is interminable, the mystery that is being solved is mostly a cold case with no connection to any of the main characters and the investigation uses such thrillingly cinematic techniques as looking at moldy files and comparing old photos. At the very end of the movie we learn that the killer we have been tracking may still be active, but at that point who cares anymore? By then I’m rooting for the murderer, simply because he might make something happen in this leaden film.
There’s a large fanbase that has sprung up around the novel, and it seems mostly based on Lisbeth Salander, the Aspergian goth investigator whose exploited sexuality is presented as powerful. She’s the only interesting character in the whole movie - lead hero Mikael Blomkvist’s defining attribute seems to be that he looks like Daniel Craig - but she always feels like the fetish object upon which the whole endeavour is centered.
For Larsson the fetish is obvious; he was a middle-aged Swede who was the co-founder of a financially troubled liberal magazine while Blomkvist is a middle-aged Swede who is the co-founder of a financially troubled liberal magazine. Having this exotic, strange, strong, sexy woman walk in and seduce Blomkvist is a complete masturbatory fantasy for Larsson (to be fair the seduction of Mikael plays less creepy in the film simply because Daniel Craig is HOT, and so you believe that this young woman might be interested in fucking him). The ending - MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW - where the seemingly emotionally-detached woman is so in love with the old man that she is heartbroken over him, is the climax of that masturbatory fantasy. He is so good he can crack that nut and own her, not just her pussy but also her heart.
For Fincher the fetish seems to be largely visual and attitudinal. There is one sequence in the film that pops, and it’s a Lisbeth sequence in which she is anally raped and then gets revenge. Besides the ridiculous music video opening credits, this is the moment where the movie rouses itself into any sort of life; I can’t believe that Fincher made the film just to do this sequence, but I can’t exactly figure out what else it was about this deadly dull material that attracted him.
Working with Rooney Mara he creates a striking version of Lisbeth, and I think Mara - who is basically playing an alien most of the movie - should be given some serious credit for occasionally popping through the autistic exterior to show us some small moments of humanity. But it’s not enough, and what’s worse is that her best stuff - emotionally - comes during an overlong and semi-detached epilogue. Just as the movie feels like it should be wrapping up we get 20 more minutes of Lisbeth doing shit that she probably should have been doing earlier in the film, in terms of audience interest levels.
Craig is fine, although he must feel as though he’s making a Bond movie here - he ends up captured in the villain’s torture dungeon, and the bad guy even (and I wish I was kidding here) says “We’re not so different, you and I,” or a variation on that phrase. He’s a magnetic personality, so it’s enjoyable to watch him even as he is trudging through a non-starter first act that should have been completely truncated (what is wrong with Zaillian? This is easily one of the worst adaptation jobs I’ve ever seen).
Technically Fincher’s work is strong here, but it’s in service of nothing. The two protagonists don’t meet until the second half of the movie, and the cross-cutting between the stories is sloppy and arrhythmic. While that’s a problem with the edit, the problem really stems from the source - there’s so little thematic connection between these characters until they meet that every cut back and forth is jarring.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the ultimate poseur movie, working hard to get a sleek, cool look but having no understanding of what that look means. There’s no soul here, no edge to all the edginess. Women are raped and men are rapists and isn’t Rooney Mara sexy and aren’t the landscapes chilly reminders of some tedious nonsense about a boring Swedish industrial family we never even get to know. The novel, and now the American film, are temporary tattoos, a way of feeling underground without ever committing to anything real.