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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


David Fincher returns to his favourite stomping ground of fear and degradation, only without either the conceptual twist or “true story” badge that ensured Seven and Zodiac stood out from the crowd. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can’t even sell itself as a much-asked-for adaptation of a best-selling novel, as it had already been brought to the screen a few years earlier. It was thus instantly obsolete and unnecessary, while simultaneously encumbered with an absurd budget, increasingly quaint English-for-foreign-language (Swedish) choices and pedestrian “shock” tactics. This is Fincher on thematic autopilot, mutton dressed as digital lamb, but he can’t get enough of them serial killers.

I should probably stress that, while I felt his going there was rather superfluous even at the time, I was generally much better disposed towards the director’s output back in 2011; revisiting his filmography from the last two decades has been more unforgiving than not, however, with both Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button appreciably suffering. One might at least contest he was aiming for something a little more challenging with those, however. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the bog-standard Stieg Larson conspiracy serial-killer airport novel, is hardly that, and one rather gets the impression the whole package represented some way for him to get his clinical jollies through exploring an intimate exploration of its protagonist, super-smart tattooed autistic androgynous bisexual feminist hacker vigilante and scourge-of-misogynists-everywhere Lisbeth Salander. Oh, and with a fortunate penchant for sleeping with older men, particularly author-journalist co-protagonists. She’s also – until the sequel – “flat chested, as if she had never reached puberty”. Who knows what’s going on there. Possibly, by projection, the younger hacker/older journo mirrors the rapport between starlet and director.

After all, who knows what was going on in the Svengali Fincher’s mind, per a Vogue piece around the time of the picture’s release: “Their relationship, it quickly becomes clear, is charged with the electric current of the mentor-protégée crush, which is both touching and occasionally uncomfortable to watch. Or, as Daniel Craig, who co-stars as a crusading journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, says about their working relationship, ‘It’s fucking weird!’” if that’s in Vogue… Fincher didn’t want to cast Scarlett Johansson, he said, because “you can’t wait for her to take her clothes off”. One senses a lot of unsuppressed male-wish-fulfilment fantasy, both in the book’s character and in Fincher’s production (Datalounge is non-committal on his preferences).

When you combine that with his meticulous attention to detail, obsession with subject matter that lends itself to multiple identities (Fight Club), realities (The Game) and serial killers, you have someone who seems – although, he apparently does not rank as a Hollywood Black Hat – a most conspicuous conduit for evangelising the CIA MKUltra gospel. That along with playing with gender identity from the off (the Vogue video, Sigourney’s hair in Alien³, inverted Brad, hermaphrodite Nicole until Jodie stepped in, Fight Club’s lavish homoeroticism). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fetishises the fetishist, the abused lesbian woman-child who just needs a real man to set her straight, and along the way, just to show Larson/Fincher is a feminist, enables her revenge on a pig rapist in the most crudely exploitative fashion (both in terms of the sadistic/voyeuristic assault she must suffer and the subsequent take-that, eye-for-an-eye retribution). It’s so crude and posturing, it’s no wonder it didn’t take with audiences. 

Did Fincher really think he could get away with the awful pull line “I want you to help me catch a killer of women”? What, had Blomkvist planned the phrase that would get her interested (without actually knowing her hang-ups)? The director had it that “The ballistic, ripping-yarn thriller aspect of it is kind of a red herring in a weird way. It is the thing that throws Salander and Blomkvist together, but it is their relationship you keep coming back to”. You, maybe David. Frankly, it’s actually all a little too skeevy. That Blomkvist should be into her, but more, given the clarion call for her as some kind of icon, that she should be into him (even reconfigured as the massive man tit’d Craig). 

The plot ostensibly offers such meaty themes as generational Elite practices and abuse, corporate conspiracy and the farce of journalistic integrity, but little of it sticks. Some is set up for another day (the sequels that never happened), other parts (Nazism) turn out to be red herrings, kind of. Yes, there are rich Elites who train the brood in their ways, complete with kill basements, but they represent bad generational apples rather than full-blown bloodlines (you know, the way there’s always a bad guy in an otherwise spotless CIA or FBI). 

Even if you don’t know the earlier movie, Stellan Skarsgård’s the likely perp, just because he’s a familiar face. And there’s neither anything very distinctive or compelling about his superior attitude (“just another immigrant whore” in a cage), nor the way Blomkvist ferrets out the truth about the villain and the decades-old disappearance of Harriet. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may function via an ungainly “five-act” structure, but it hasn’t a single surprise. It even has the villain helpfully reveal himself with minimum fuss. The chief consequence is you note just how long it is before Mikael and Lisbeth converge, and how the initial plot thread (Wennerström’s libel action) isn’t terribly intriguing or convincingly resolved – via superspy mistress-of-disguise Lisbeth in a Hitchcockian blonde wig – once we get back to it. The epilogue lasts about half-an-hour, but Fincher likes his long movies as much as he likes infinite takes and infinite serial killers.

The justice for Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) is perfunctory; we never get to know him, so his deserving illegal activity in order to expose his illegal activity never really feels earned, just as Lisbeth’s earlier revenge is over earned (and over embellished). Steven Zaillian earlier adapted another popular serial-killer novel, Hannibal, to similarly bodged results (as they go, the Swedish Larsen trilogy is quite watchable, but then there’s never a sense it’s trying to package itself as flashy, lurid exotica). 

I’m not a fan of Fincher’s move to digital, but it’s more successful here than in either Zodiac or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He throws in a Sub-Bond title sequence for his sub-Bond, apparently a ‘sort of primordial sort of tar and ooze of the subconscious… sort of her nightmare“. It looks rather like black goo. Fincher even says at much (“One had flowers coming out of this black ooze”).

Mara’s fine, obediently exposing her all at her master’s request, but this isn’t a star turn. She’s better in her much briefer The Social Network role. The Swedish accents are silly; Craig at least had the sense/ laziness to use his real voice, but they’d have been better relocating the whole thing to Alaska. No good can come of English transposed to non-English language countries these days (see also The Snowman). Craig looks weary and old (he was only 43; there is a lot of drinking in the movie, though). Jim Robinson, Donald Sumpter and Martin Jarvis appear. There’s product placement for Coke and McCannibals Meals.

Fincher’s career is littered with projects that might have made his resumé seem less dour… or even more so. More serial killers (Torso, The Black Dahlia) but also blockbusters (Cleopatra, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, World War Z 2). In the aftermath of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he delivered a much-needed hit, but another trashy murder one (Gone Girl) and some “prestige” TV (pal Spacey and more serial killers in House of Cards and Mindhunter respectively). 

He’s gone from being a meticulous filmmaker who seemed to have a flair for distinctive material to a meticulous filmmaker flourishing an increasingly tiresome, sub-Hitchcock pose, with only the rare respite (The Social Network). Perhaps he just likes inhabiting the fetid sewer. Perhaps he was born to it (as a lad, he lived two doors down from George Lucas) and likes to employ others who were (the Maras, Armie Hammer). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo saw him running on empty. The best thing about it’s the cover of popular Satanists Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, and you don’t need to see the movie for that.

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