“Apprehension” is an odd word to use when discussing a David Fincher film, but it’s an accurate one when it comes to this film. I was very excited to see it, but my optimism was cautious to say the least. Fincher may be one of the best directors working today, but the material that he’s putting on screen isn’t really all that great. The novel that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is based on, while enjoyable, is flawed in the story department. I was nervous that Fincher, a talented storyteller, wouldn’t have a lot to work with with this story. And I’m still not sure if I was right. I mean, Dragon Tattoo is a good movie. I wouldn’t call it great, but it was certainly very good. However, I have some problems with the flow of the story in the last third.
Up until that point, the story has an excellent pace. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this up for a Best Editing nomination come Oscar time, because the parallel storylines throughout Act One of the film manages completely work, without it seeming like one side is getting more screentime than the other. This was clearly a meticulous process, and I think that Angus Wall (who won the award with Kirk Baxter for The Social Network last year) deserves to be honored again.
Speaking of last year’s Oscar winners, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are back from The Social Network to score this film, and, well, I could probably write an entire article on it, so I’ll try to keep it brief. The score for this film is at once beautiful and bizarre, something that requires close inspection but one that you’d want to hold at arm’s length. In that way, it’s successful in reflecting the main character of the film, Lisbeth Salander, a girl who is lethally dangerous and yet fascinating. The film tosses us right into the melee at its beginning, with a loud, rousing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, performed by Reznor and Ross and featuring Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This song was prominently featured in the advertising for the film, and it plays over the opening credits. It gets the audience’s blood pumping right off the bat (a good thing, considering that the film is very slow-paced). The film ends with another cover, of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” which plays over the end credits. This also features beautiful female vocals and booming guitars, and it is just as beautiful. Unlike the opening, this song soothes the audience and eases us out of the intense film we have just watched.
But my favorite thing about the score is this: It doesn’t spoon-feed the audience their emotions. It doesn’t fade permanently into the background either, though. It maintains a constant presence, lurking throughout the film, complimenting Fincher’s chilly visuals (even in the summer, Sweden appears to be below zero) with style. Feeding the audience their emotions is something that always bugs me about film scores. John Williams is immensely talented, but he is totally guilty of this. Reznor and Ross, however, show that they don’t have to be blatant with their music to make it good. Their music is as good in the film as it is on an album, and that’s probably the ultimate success for a composer. Now, I’m not generally a fan of Reznor’s music, but this album represents a definite step up for him. It’s more mature, lacking the anger that characterized his other projects while maintaining their texture. It also isn’t your standard issue thriller soundtrack with high-pitched strings and loud orchestra stings. However, it is unbearably tense, very atmospheric, and extremely evocative of the tone of Fincher’s film.
Anyway, that’s the end of the musical discussion. Let’s move on. What everyone really wants to know about is the title character, right? I liked Noomi Rapace’s performance in the original Swedish film. She was deliberately flat and cold. You could never make an emotional connection with her. Rooney Mara’s interpretaion is a Lisbeth that you can really get into. The film, in the end, is about how a guarded, introspective person opens up to someone, and how well it goes. As Lisbeth warms up to Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, about whom there is not much of interest to say), the audience warms up to Lisbeth, and by the end, we feel for her in a way that is not pity. Also of note is how her character is written. An early poster for the film was criticized for apparently portraying Lisbeth as a weak little girl who needs Blomkvist to protect her. In the film, however, she is always in total control of everything and everyone around her, especially sexually. This is why her rape at the hands of her caretaker is so crushing. It is the one moment when Lisbeth isn’t in total control of a situation. Fincher, screenwriter Steve Zaillian, and both Mara and Yorick van Wageningen (who plays her caretaker) handle a very controversial scene with grace (or, as much grace as can be afforded, given the brutal nature of the scene).
Also of note when it comes to acting is Stellan Skarsgård, a very underappreciated actor. He plays his role brilliantly, and I’m shocked that there isn’t any Oscar buzz around him. Throughout the film, he is absolutely charming and sweet. He is the perfect picture of a dangerous psychopath. He doesn’t go the Hannibal Lecter route and turn the character into a caricature of a crazy man. He’s just a man, a man who happens to be a total sadist. Fincher likes to deal with serial killers of this nature. As Brad Pitt says in Se7en, of that film’s villain, “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” Skarsgård pulls that off better than I’ve probably ever seen.
What is there to say about Fincher? We all know he’s talented, and this film doesn’t do anything to dissuade those beliefs. He’s a very good director. Devoting a paragraph to his direction is like talking about Scorsese’s methodology, or Spielberg’s. We all know how they work and what their films are like. There’s really no point in discussing it unless they rapidly deviate, and Fincher certainly doesn’t do that.
Really, my only problem with this film is the last twenty minutes (excluding the 2 or 3 immediately before the end credits, because that scene totally works). After the mystery has been solved, there’s this lengthy coda that shows the conclusion of a subplot that made up a miniscule fraction of the movie. But can we blame the book for the movie’s sins? After all, this section was straight out of the original novel. And as a matter of fact, I can see why they wanted to include it. It is meant to further flesh out how much Lisbeth cares for Blomkvist, which further adds to the impact of the very last scene, but it drags on and on endlessly. It could have easily been cut down to five or so minutes and had double the impact. The solution to the mystery works pretty well. It has an intense climax and a nice dénouement. In fact, the film would have worked had the coda been cut entirely.
Unfortunately, this is the film as it is, and I’m actually comfortable with that. As I’ve gone into depth about, the rest of the film works like gangbusters. It may be the “feel-bad movie of Christmas”, but as a film aficionado, I had a great time with it.. This film certainly isn’t for everyone, but it was definitely for me.
**Shout-out to my friend Mike Sliwinski, who you might remember from that great guest review of The Last Airbender. He paid for my ticket.**