Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Reflections on a Dragon Tattoo

with 3 comments

My feelings about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are a matter of record. No other cultural sensation of recent years has left me so cold: where others see a masterpiece, I see a book that is amateurishly plotted, lurid but airless, overlong, and, worst of all, often grindingly dull. I’m not passing judgment on the novel’s many fans; only trying, unsuccessfully, to figure out what they find so compelling. I’m on the outside, looking in. Which made me all the more interested, paradoxically, in seeing David Fincher’s film of the book. As I’ve said before, with Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher has gone from a filmmaker toward whom I’ve always felt considerable ambivalence to one of my four or five favorite contemporary directors. He’s an impeccable craftsman with a nice, chilly style, and to my eyes, he seemed like just the man to pare away the worst of the book’s shortcomings to reveal the germ of a decent story at its heart.

The good news is that the movie is much better than the book. Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian skillfully foreshorten the novel’s interminable opening and closing sections, cut down on the number of meaningless suspects, and make the logic of the investigation, if not exactly plausible, at least visually comprehensible. In many ways, this is a more impressive display of Fincher’s craft than a more engaging story might have afforded: for a movie with little conventional suspense and even less real action, it’s surprisingly absorbing, and seems much shorter than its actual length of nearly three hours. Like all of Fincher’s movies, it looks and sounds great. And the cast is excellent, especially Rooney Mara as Lisbeth: it’s a performance based as much on makeup and costume design as any real conception of the character—much of her acting is done by the back of her head, and those amazing earrings—but Mara commits fearlessly to the part, and whenever she’s onscreen, the movie gains an additional charge.

Unfortunately, while the film does a nice job of addressing the story’s tedium, it doesn’t do much for its essential pointlessness. What, exactly, is this movie about? Like the book, the film ruminates endlessly on the complexities of the Vanger company and its tangled family tree, only to give us a killer at the end whose identity and motivations are completely arbitrary. The characters make wildly implausible deductions and even more inexplicable decisions, as when Blomkvist, effectively portrayed by Daniel Craig, figures out who the killer is, then rushes over immediately to the suspect’s isolated house, alone and unarmed. Perhaps most unforgivably, while the movie, like the book, is superficially concerned with violence against women, it has nothing interesting to say on the subject—aside from endorsing some astonishing forms of revenge—and often seems content to simply titillate the audience. From Fincher, who is capable of much better things, this is a particular disappointment.

Despite its obvious technical merits, then, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels like a step backward for one of our most interesting directors. If Fincher had only made Seven, The Game, and Panic Room, I might have felt differently: in that case, this film would have seemed like the best he was capable of delivering. But after The Social Network, and in particular after Zodiac, Fincher has emerged as a director who can follow through masterfully on genre conventions while also teasing out deeper possibilities. He’s still a master of mise-en-scène, and, like Hitchcock, he’s fond of nice sick touches—his use of “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” is especially inspired—but Dragon Tattoo finds him oddly unengaged. As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a sleek, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

3 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Edilio Ciclostile.

    ediliociclostile

    January 5, 2012 at 10:40 am

  2. Great blog regarding this movie. I’ve heard rave reviews from family and friend, but I have yet to read the book. I too wondered what the lure of the movie was. Thanks for your movie review!

    Java Girl

    January 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  3. I’d definitely recommend the movie over the book. I have no desire to read the other two novels, but part of me would still be interested in seeing the sequels in movie form—there’s undeniably a lot of talent there.

    nevalalee

    January 6, 2012 at 6:08 pm


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