The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a master class in bleak, unforgiving cinema. That David Fincher would be tapped to helm the American version of the film based on Stieg Larsson’s international bestselling novel isn’t surprising, given his track record with dark and uncomfortable procedurals like Seven and Zodiac. It’s even tempting to say that Dragon Tattoo falls in line with those films, since they each revolve around heinous acts committed by serial killers. Yet Dragon Tattoo isn’t nearly at the level of those films, nor of any of the rest of Fincher’s work. It’s fragmented in the extreme, feeling so choppy and episodic it’s as if screenwriter Steven Zaillian either didn’t know what to cut from Larsson’s novel or just didn’t care. Instead of a narrative, we’re given a relentless blast of scenes and information, cold and unfeeling. Some might argue (and undoubtedly will) that this is, say, an aesthetic touch meant to mirror the main characters’ immersion in a digital culture, and that the flotsam of information in which they float is being funneled back at us as a way to communicate their disorientation. (And I just made that up.) Such a reading would be generous to the point of myopia. The plain and uncomfortable truth is that it’s a sloppy narrative presented with an abundance of sizzle and a lack of substance. Viewers will recall that Seven and Zodiac, on top of everything else, were mysteries that held water. The investigators worked diligently to piece together a puzzle whose image often refused to come into focus, yet their efforts were always consistent, effortful, and presented with care. In Dragon Tattoo, though, two characters work to solve a decades-old crime through detective work that might as well be witchcraft. None of the pieces fit together very well, and scenes meant to be revelatory and gripping are instead cold and distant. Fincher is subsumed by his desire to present a slick world populated by men and women with constantly shifting loyalties, but in his rush to make a stylistic statement, he forgoes basic logical consistency and internal continuity. He’s made a pretty mess.
Yet there I go again, falling into the trap of an easy auteristic answer to the problem that is this heartless and unentertaining film. Fincher was the interpreter, the visualist, the helmsman, but he wasn’t the architect. This story came from somewhere else before he finally got his hands on it. He’s done his best to polish the source material into something more emotionally accurate, more in tune with the world as we know it, and he made great strides in putting his own brand on the story. There’s a bone-chilling beauty to so much of the film, and there are a few suspense-filled sequences that rank among Fincher’s most controlled and haunting. But his name casts a long shadow over the film, and it’s only with concentrated effort you realize that, if you didn’t know the film was a Fincher product, you wouldn’t be nearly so willing to find ways to praise it. Such is the street cred afforded one of the most gifted directors of his generation, but such is his curse, as well.
The story — meted out through three beginnings, two and a half endings, and a ponderous middle section — revolves around Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who resigns in disgrace after an article he writes about a business magnate is attacked as libel. He’s not out of work long, though. Soon enough, he’s hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to find out what happened to Henrik’s niece, Harriet, who went missing from the family’s island compound 40 years earlier. Prior to Blomkvist’s hiring, Vanger has the journalist checked out by a security firm, which in turn contracts hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to examine Blomkvist’s background. For the first half of the film, Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s lives parallel each other but do not intersect, so while Blomkvist moves to the guest house on Vanger’s estate to dig into the mystery, Lisbeth voyeuristically monitors his computer from afar while dealing with her own private turmoils.
Lisbeth’s life is hell, and the section of the film concerning her actions before meeting Blomkvist is both narratively empty and impossible to watch. Lisbeth was diagnosed with emotional issues as a youth and is essentially a ward of the state, living as an adult but meeting regularly with a social worker to receive her paychecks. When her guardian takes ill, she’s assigned to the care of Nils Bjruman (Yorick vam Wageningen), who turns out to be far worse than she could have dared imagine. (There are spoilers ahead, and they’re also graphic. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Bjurman forces her to fellate him to receive one payment; the next time, when she visits his home, he cuffs her to the bed and anally rapes her. The horror of the scene, the sheer gut-churning awfulness, cannot be overstated or ignored. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s thudding score builds hellishly beforehand as Lisbeth screams into her gag, trying in vain to get away. It’s the most painful thing Fincher’s ever committed to the screen. But this is only the first half of what shapes up to be a curdled revenge fantasy. Lisbeth returns to the man’s home at a later date and visits a torment upon him equal to her punishment: She knocks him out, strips him naked, shoves (and then kicks) a steel dildo into his rectum, and tattoos “I am a rapist pig” across his naked chest.
I’m putting all that out there because it’s impossible to talk about the film’s real issues without discussing the total horror at its heart. The broader mystery is almost incidental, an entire film’s worth of MacGuffin, to this polarizing, grimy story of rape and punishment. Lisbeth is defiled, and she returns her pain in kind. There is no healing, no salvation, no line connecting the dots. There is only action and reaction. The discomfort and toxicity of the scenes are palpable, but underneath that, it should be noted, is nothing. That Lisbeth is being attacked is beyond awful, but what makes it so especially sad is that we have no idea who she is, nor do we ever. Mara sinks so far into the role that she becomes a cipher, a pure utilitarian object that works with computers and nothing more. Her torture makes her what she is, but we’re never allowed to feel anything for her beyond a detached, clinical sorrow. That makes for a shocking but utterly forgettable film experience.
Mikael eventually teams up with Lisbeth after learning that Henrik had hired her to do background research, and their partnership finally makes some headway in the decades-old case. Yet so much of the mystery feels like the polar opposite of the grace of Zodiac: While that film offered tantalizing clues leading to a probable conclusion, Fincher here seems to skip a few clues in his hurry to just get to the next bit, offering disconnected clues and then presenting a conclusion we’re asked to take on faith. There’s one particularly egregious bit involving numeric codes left behind by Harriet that turn out to be shorthand for passages in her old Bible. After having the answer dropped into his lap by a third party, Mikael magically turns to the right pages (which have been dog-eared anyway) and extracts the correct verses, which in turn lead him to a string of old murders that are (for reasons I cannot even begin to unpack) related to Harriet’s disappearance. The sequence has the air of utter wish-fulfillment, and the pesky questions that start to pop up (Why do five-digit codes make sense for the Bible? What do the numbers mean? How does Mikael figure out which numbers and verses correspond?) become lost in the shuffle as the film moves onto the next conspiracy and cover-up. Rather than the sublime pleasure of a riddle solved and a story well-told, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo offers a blunt recitation of its dubious facts. Again, Lisbeth’s torture comes to mind. There is no how or why, only this.
Craig brings a solid if perfunctory energy to his role. Mikael’s a dogged investigator, and as he gets closer to the heart of the twisted truth of the story, he finds himself developing a brand of feelings for Lisbeth (the sexual ramifications of which would take whole books to understand). Yet, in keeping with the film’s chilly tone, it’s a distant and unfeeling relationship, impossible to care about. The rest of the cast performs as expected — Stellan Skarsgard is reliably off-putting in a role he was probably waiting to be given the moment Larsson’s book hit U.S. shelves — but there’s no getting past the fact that Fincher’s made a visually arresting and mentally vacuous film that’s the award-season version of a beach-read page-turner. It’s ungainly and unpleasant, often confusing and never entertaining. When Mikael’s beginning his investigation, he gets a lengthy family history from Henrik, only to reply as he takes frustrated notes, “I’m quickly losing track of who’s who here.” It’s easy to sympathize with him. The film and its characters are a blur of snow and amber, devoted to the transitory summoning of a feeling instead of channeling that feeling into a story or purpose. Tattoos aren’t supposed to wash off this easily.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.