Review: Fincher’s take on ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is visually striking and dramatically dormant

There are few filmmakers whose work speaks more directly to me on an aesthetic level than David Fincher.

Even so, my first exposure to his work as a feature film director left me convinced that he was not worth paying attention to at all.  Considering how little he has to say about “Alien 3” at this point, it seems he agrees that it was not the best foot forward, and all accounts of the experience make it sound like it was a nightmare for all involved.

As a result, when I walked into his next film, I had no expectations at all, and I think I even had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the movie.  A few hours later, I sat there, totally flattened by “Se7en,” amazed at what the film accomplished and just how rough it played.  It seemed like a film made by someone who had decided to never compromise again, and there was something genuinely dangerous about it.  Immediately, my opinion of Fincher shifted, and in the years since, he’s proven himself to be an immaculate visual artist, capable of creating some of the most arresting, electrifying images of the last fifteen years.

Purely judged on its technical merits, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is sensational, another example of just how much control Fincher is capable of exerting over every element of his films.  It is gorgeous, and I feel like you could pull almost any frame of the film out as a stand-alone work of art thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is just as effective at setting a particular mood as their Oscar-winning work on last year’s “The Social Network.”  So why is it that at the end of the two-hour forty-minute run time, I felt absolutely nothing for this film at all?

The short answer is that I simply don’t like the source material.  I have read all three books.  I have seen all three Swedish films.  And now I’ve seen the Fincher version.  And my sum total reaction to all of it is, “Okay.  That’s nice.  I don’t get it.”  I mean, I understand a sort of surface appeal.  After all, “Se7en” was 15 years ago, and “Silence Of The Lambs” was a full 20 years ago now.  We live in a world of pop culture that was shaped, in large part, by the nuclear-scale detonations of Thomas Harris and David Fincher.  What was outrageous and transgressive and dangerous the first time we saw it has been so internalized by our culture that it wouldn’t surprise me if I saw an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants” making Hannibal Lecter jokes or doing a parody of John Doe at the end of “Se7en.”  To be honest, I think Fincher’s version is the most clinical, and as a result, I felt like the “dirty” sort of doesn’t register at all.  It’s so austere, so beautifully shot and carefully composed that there’s something matter of fact about the casual degradation and sexual power politics at play.  That may well be Fincher’s point, but it softens the impact quite a bit.  Or maybe it’s that Fincher pushes Rooney Mara more towards the Hot Topic superhero that I think Larsson’s book originally created.

That’s the real phenomenon here… not the mystery in the film or the gradual revelation of Salander’s background or the way her past folds into her present… but just Salander herself, probably autistic, definitely damaged, but a survivor who can outthink and outhunt anyone.  She exists to visit hellfire and pain on men who do terrible sexually violent things to women, and she will win.  That’s all you need to know to get the shape of the entire trilogy.  And if you need Salander as an archetype, if it’s something that punches your button, I’m not going to pick on that.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the books.  I just think they’re okay supermarket checkout read on an airplane sort of books, forgettable except for a few key beats, and enjoyable enough.  They are sort of self-mythologizing pulp nonsense, in which Stieg Larsson reinvents himself as the wrongly persecuted but totally dashing and sexually irresistible journalist who gets called on to solve an impossible mystery, a locked-room but with an entire island of various motives and opportunities.  And he gives his fictional doppleganger the coolest new sort-of girlfriend in the world, this Batman-with-a-bruised-pout that can do anything with a computer and seems to have no fear at all.

It’s sort of hilarious, deep down.  And so Fincher makes the only rational choice here and plays it about 10,000 times more serious, pouring on the mood and the miss en scene and the Mara, and it’s a pretty straight adaptation.  I thought “Moneyball” exhibited definite signs of authorship by both credited writers, Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin.  In this film, I don’t really see much of Zallian, other than a certain degree of quiet economy in shaping the puffed-up prose of the book into something fairly streamlined and propulsive.  There is a certain iconic frisson from seeing the current James Bond held helpless like the typical movie heroine at one point, only to have the 92-pound profoundly-pierced girl come to his rescue, and I think Fincher’s well aware of that.  Craig’s good.  He plays what he’s supposed to play, a cool badass journalist/magazine publisher who has this swinging bachelor life and who just got humbled.  And Mara is good.  Very good, even.

But Lisbeth Salander is a largely internal animal.  That’s just how she’s written.  It’s how she’s been imagined.  It’s interesting that both of the big Scott Rudin films this holiday season feature lead characters who are possibly nestled somewhere left of center on the autistic scale, and they each handle them in very different ways.  Here, Lisbeth vanishes inside herself when she’s hurt or nervous or thinking or sizing someone up or hurting or happy.  Basically, she has been trained by life to be ready for a kick, a punch, a knife or a bus and to always be defensive, to never let that down.  Mara has to take this highly nonverbal character and she’s given her a very clear physical language that the audience can read.  She’s great.  It’s just not a lead that interests me in the end, and I feel like the entire thing builds to that last emotional sour note, which is certainly well-played and well-staged, but it feels like a shameless bit of soap opera, and the film tries to play like something more, something serious.  I almost wish Fincher had pushed this whole thing pulpier, because as it is, it’s like reading something that someone has overthought, a book they edited too many times.  It’s dead, no matter how much it moves.

The large ensemble cast, including Craig, Mara, Robin Wright, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Joely Richardson, and Goran “Euro Clooney” Visnjic, all have strong moments to play and at least one or two times to really crank it up.  But if anything, the disappearance that dominates most of the movie is such a laborious sort of “1+1+1+1+1” type of straight-line, as investigations go,, that there’s no tension, nothing for them to really play.  Every time the script switches gears into the darker corners of the thing, it backs off fairly quickly.  It never really gets scary, it never really gets tense, it never really gets gross, it never really gets hyper-feminist, it never really digs deeper into Salander, content to just get the blunt force recollections she offers up and let that be enough.

Again… if you love these books, then consider this a Christmas present.  But if you’re going to this for Fincher, be aware that the strongest hint you’ll see of his voice is the opening title sequence.  I wish I saw something more here.  I wish I could just bask in the undeniably burnished glow of Fincher’s filmmaking.  I think Rooney Mara’s going to win a lot of fans for the level of commitment she shows here.  But I’m about as excited about the prospects of sequels to this as I am about Tom Hanks starring in Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” even with one of the strongest craftsmen working at the peak of his prowess.

“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” opens December 21, 2011.