There is no director more ideally suited to adapt Stieg Larsson’s best-selling potboiler The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo than David Fincher, and not just for the obvious reason that he knows his way around the serial-killer thriller. He’s equally adept at taking unwieldy chunks of exposition—like the lawsuits over the founding of Facebook or the leads (and blind alleys) in the investigation of the Zodiac killer or the gnarled family tree in Larsson’s book—and making it look like cinema of the first order. The real question is this: Is the material worthy of him? Though films like Seven and Zodiac are tense, stylish, beautifully crafted thrillers, they also have deeper thematic undercurrents, questions about the existential value of living in a sinful, inhospitable world or the nature and consequences of obsession. By contrast, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is all surface—magnificent, arresting surface, but surface all the same.
A typically Fincherian hero—the loner who retreats from family and society to burrow into a project—Daniel Craig stars as a Swedish journalist who seizes the chance to pivot out of highly publicized libel suit and into something new. Christopher Plummer, as the retired CEO of a large corporation, summons Craig to a remote island where he and members of his family live in luxury, and, more often than not, bitter estrangement. Plummer wants Craig to document the family’s history, but the focus of his investigation turns to the disappearance (and likely murder) of Plummer’s grand-niece 36 years earlier. As the case grows more complicated, Craig brings on an unconventional but brilliant research assistant in Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a young woman coarsened by her horrific experiences within the social system.
Fincher and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, have done little to tighten up the bookends of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which perspires a little in the first-act build-up and huffs through an unusually long denouement. But the film hits a nice groove in the interplay between Craig and Mara, together and apart, and Fincher displays his usual mastery at explicating the finer points of an investigation. Mara’s Salander is the film’s lifeblood, a shrewd yet vulnerable outsider whose resilience and pluck help Fincher elevate The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo above the standard procedural. But just barely.