Silver Screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo *
The combination of director David Fincher and the bestselling mystery novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sounds like a sure thing. The first installment of Stieg Larsson’s popular three-part series sports a core mystery and a gruesome killer that recalls serial-killer fare like Silence of the Lambs-- ideal territory for the stylist behind Seven, Panic Room, and Zodiac. Yet the final product remains surprisingly inert, in part because it's overly devoted to the source material yet still fails to capture the spirit that made it so distinguishable.
The story interweaves two separate plots, the primary one of which concerns the title character not at all. Disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is nearly bankrupt from a libel lawsuit he lost to a cunning white-collar criminal when he's approached by the aging scion of the wealthy Vanger family to help solve a mystery. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) believes his niece, Harriet, who vanished decades ago, was murdered, and that her killer is still taunting him on the anniversary of her disappearance. The Vanger family lives on an isolated island connected to the mainland by a single bridge that was closed down the last weekend Harriet was seen alive. Most of the family still lives on the island estate, including Harriet's brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgå rd) and her aunt Anita (Joley Richardson), but bad blood keeps all the members apart. The circumstances of Harriet's disappearance make for a kind of locked-room mystery made all the more difficult because Mikael must do his searching through old photos, newspaper archives, and interviews.
The second storyline is concerned with the strange history of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punked-out, sexually ambiguous savant who hacks computers and does research for a private investigator's office. She's a former ward of the state still legally entangled by her criminal past, which makes her a target for sadistic parole officer Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who attempts to take control of her in every way.
It's more than an hour into the movie before Lisbeth and Mikael's paths cross, but when they do they inevitably join forces and form an unsteady partnership.
The loose structure and slow pace that was less noticeable in the book seriously drag down Fincher's film adaptation, however, and by the time our heroes finally meet the audience's patience has already been tested. That the movie will ultimately drag on for more than two and a half hours is bad enough, but it's made intolerable because the identity of the killer is pretty much a foregone conclusion early on. While the book delves deep into the history of each member of the Vanger family and their help, setting up a host of potential suspects, the film really presents only one plausible suspect. In the end, it's either going to turn out to be the guy you thought it was all along or somebody you've never even met, so the film is doomed to conclude either predictably or with a cheat. (In a surprisingly obvious misstep, Fincher makes the classic mistake of casting a too-prominent actor in an otherwise minor role, signaling the character's guilt almost from his introduction.)
That's a perfect example of the primary problem dogging Fincher's take on Dragon Tattoo. The movie tries to implicate all of the Vangers, yet doesn't have the time to devote to making them all characters. Nearly all the subplots are similarly afflicted. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, apparently not willing to reimagine or remove significant portions of the source material, can only skim the surface of the many subplots, taking up valuable screentime with them yet never making any of them individually compelling. We don't know enough about, say, Blomkvist's legal battle, which might be more compelling if it was explicated in the detail it was explored in in the novel, yet the last thing Fincher's film needs is more exposition and detail. Rather than trimming a few precious plot tangents, Zaillian attempts to capture them all superficially and succeeds in making a Cliffs Notes version of the book that's overburdened and slow yet frustratingly weightless. The novel was fun but shaggy around the edges and overindulgent; putting the action onscreen only magnifies the flaws.
The one element of the film that stands out is Mara's Salander, who is an absolutely unique and compelling creation. Mara plays her with the perfect blend of sexiness, alienation, and inscrutability. She's both bird-boned and frail and inked-up and badass. Whenever she's onscreen the movie attains a little momentum, but the character is adrift in a plot that doesn't deserve her.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.