Until last week, I wasn't even aware that David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo needed any defending. It's certainly a lesser work in David Fincher's very accomplished catalogue, but I was under the impression that it was a film acknowledged for its flaws but generally respected as a better film than, say, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But then the trailer for The Girl In The Spider's Web dropped, and I found myself as the lone defender of Dragon Tattoo among the BMD staff. The general consensus was that, as Jacob Knight put it, Fincher had crafted a "gorgeous glacier," interesting to look at but slow-moving and dull.
Could my memory be faulty? I hadn't actually seen the film since its release in theaters, but I remembered quite enjoying it, and that enjoyment prompted me to read the original trilogy of Millenium novels and check out the trilogy of Swedish films, which I mostly also enjoyed. But I've come a long way since then in terms of worldview, cinematic literacy, and, dare I say it, sophistication; maybe a reevaluation was in order. So I revisited The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to see what exactly my film nerd compatriots were on about.
Sorry guys, but The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a good movie. It's not as great as I remembered, and it doesn't hold a candle to Fincher's best work, but it's a remarkably solid film that suffers less from what Fincher does with it than what Fincher had to work with.
To be fair, Dragon Tattoo's faults aren't minor, and from a lesser director the film might have broken under the weight of them. The problem is that the film is so beholden to the structure of the books and of the Swedish adaptations that it feels somewhat incomplete as a singular narrative. The Millenium trilogy leans heavily into having a three act structure spread across three volumes, so the main character of the trilogy, Lisbeth Salander, is largely relegated to introductory activities in this installment, spending the majority of the film and her most interesting scenes completely divorced from the central plot of a story that is supposedly about her. But because you can't just have Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist meet for no reason by the time The Girl Who Played With Fire rolls around, we have to split the film's time between exploring the psychology of an iconically interesting character and following a purposely milquetoast investigator embroiled in a mystery plot, and the two don't exactly gel. This is the largest contributor to the film's long runtime and apparently glacial pace, and the problem only becomes more apparent years later with the knowledge that these versions of the characters won't get to the heart of what makes Lisbeth Salander's story so compelling to unravel.
However, there's a lot that works in the component pieces of Fincher's adaptation, a lot of right decisions that are placed within a flawed framework that might make you wish Fincher had hammered the story into a more sensible shape, but are still the right calls if you take that framework as it is. What one might call glacial, I think of as a slow burn, a complex web of intrigue that develops around a large cast of unlikeable recluses and toys with one's perception of who is trustworthy and who is actually guilty of the murder of Harriet Vanger. It feels like a pulpy cousin to Fincher's own Zodiac, admittedly without the gravitas of being based on real events and less deliberately paced, but built around the same dedication to dramatizing painstaking investigative work through the lens of a tortured investigator.
And in leaning into that pulpy nature, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo differs greatly from Zodiac in how it approaches its moments of tense revelation, not with agonizing build-up but with bursts of intensity. The subplot of Lisbeth dealing with her sexually abusive legal guardian spends a lot of time showing the slowly escalating grabs at power that Nils Bjurman takes with regards to his emotionally maladjusted ward (arguably in unnecessarily explicit detail), but the force of Lisbeth's revenge hits like a ton of bricks, creating one of the film's most lurid and memorable scenes in stark contrast to the icy, professional atmosphere that set the stage for Lisbeth's exploitation.
You can also look to the climactic scene where suspected serial murder Martin Vanger catches Blomkvist snooping around his home, inviting Blomkvist in for a drink in a shallow display of civility. Blomkvist agrees, in spite of knowing that he has been caught and isn't under an immediate threat of violence, but the fear of appearing uncivil is an overpowering force that quickly ramps up into Blomkvist's beating and imprisonment, made more visceral by the quick movements of the zipline device Martin uses to keep Blomkvist from moving as Martin manipulates his victim's body to his murderous designs. Dragon Tattoo's most memorable scenes are characterized by moments of calm that viciously escalate in seconds, providing purposeful whiplash in a film that is otherwise presented as a procedural.
But more than anything, the cast is what makes Fincher's take on the material work as well as it does. With all apologies to Bond fans, Daniel Craig's bland, self-tortured charms are perfect for playing Mikael Blomkvist, as he's enough of a cipher for audience self-projection but with enough particularities in the details of his daily life (i.e., his legal troubles, his sexual relationship with his married editor) that they provide the suitable illusion of depth. Christopher Plummer is fantastic casting as Henrik Vanger, leaning into the kindly old man trope in a way that, for Plummer, feels like an old and comfortable coat that slides right on. Stellan Skarsgård is a perfect choice to embody the shifting attitudes of Martin Vanger, calm, collected, and affable one moment, but cold, calculating, and barely concealing his rage the next. And Rooney Mara will forever be dream casting for Lisbeth Salander, embodying an otherworldly intelligence in a lithe athleticism that comes across as much more powerful than her small frame should allow. She is a barely contained vessel of vengeance, and there are enough odd details embedded in her punk-goth persona – like how she has an odd affinity for Happy Meals – to hint at a complexity that this film unfortunately doesn't have the room to explore.
I'm not here to claim that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an underappreciated masterpiece or that it's required viewing in the Fincher filmography. It's an exercise in Fincher playing with pulp, which is as much outside his comfort zone as sentimentality was when he attempted Benjamin Button. Dragon Tattoo is a marriage of Fincher's sensibilities to a source material that doesn't quite match up to his artistry, and though that creates a gap that keeps the film from greatness, it's an elevation of schlocky material that, unlike Benjamin Button, could easily have developed into something more high-brow should this have avoided being a false start to the Americanized version of this franchise.