In Praise of David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

“She’s different,” Armansky says, words that mark the worldwide iconographic appeal of the title-heroine. “In what way?” Dirch Frode asks. “In every way.” I can’t think of a more unique blockbuster in recent memory. No, not the R-rated drama aspect of David Fincher’s lurid and underrated gem. The hard-R studio adult franchise, or the promising start of one. Considering Fincher never got to see through to a trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remains as a defiant standalone movie that’s wholly unique and of a blockbuster caliber that’s rarely been attempted since.

David Fincher could’ve done many things after The Social Network. Take a sabbatical. Flip it to Hollywood. Invest in Facebook’s market shares. While Social Network was racking up awards buzz, Fincher was already off shooting Dragon Tattoo. (Being that his last feature was 2014’s Gone Girl, him doing Social Network and Dragon Tattoo back-to-back feels fucking PROLIFIC.)

In 2009, Sony nabbed the adaptation rights to Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series, now a lucrative property after the success of the Swedish film trilogy. Amy Pascal lured Fincher mid-Social Network with the promise of jumpstarting an entire R-rated franchise and an eyebrow-raising budget to back said franchise. How many adult blockbusters can you name off the top of your head? (Fifty Shades and horror movies like It and The Conjuring-spinoffs might be their own phenomenon, but they’re low-middle budget movies.)

Sony marketed Dragon Tattoo as a blockbuster, bearing the delicious tag: The Feel Bad Christmas Movie of the Year. Its most excellent teaser played ahead of X-Men: First Class IN THE SUMMER. (Also, Thor: Ragnarok might’ve ushered in a resurgence of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” but let’s be clear: Dragon Tattoo walked so Ragnarok could run.)

Studios love the PG-13 rating because it offers the possibility of more asses in seats. Deadpool and last year’s Logan are among the few recent films to have generated substantial profit despite an R-rating, or perhaps because of it. (The record-breaking sensation of The Matrix sequels seems like a lifetime ago.) This year’s The Predator, made for $90 million and grossed $160 million total, isn’t exactly a hot prospect for future R-rated blockbuster fare outside of the superhero banner.

That Sony was willing to throw $100 million at a drama-mystery-thriller still feels monumental in what it allowed David Fincher to do. Shoot on location, for one. Many balked at the notion of an American remake still set in the story’s native Sweden. In the Blu-ray special features, Fincher recalls conversations with executives about potentially relocating the story in Seattle or, wait for it, Montreal. The funny thing is I can totally see a version of Dragon Tattoo set in the U.S. Not only does our misogyny run deep in the wake of the Me Too movement, turns out we have quite a bit of Nazis here too. Both have had quite the comeuppance in recent years.

Nonetheless, the story is Swedish in nature. Sweden is remarked as one of the most gender-equal societies in the world. But this veritable utopia is marred by its own rotting core: rising domestic abuse rates, systemic abuse cases in social service programs that inform Salander’s tortured upbringing (along with a prejudice towards immigrants that suggests Sweden’s open borders aren’t welcomed by all). It’s the thin veneer barely masking a harsh truth. That no matter where you are or the progress a society makes, there is still a deep-seated hatred towards women. There will always be an entitled masculine worldview.

Nils Bjurman encompasses the scorned man’s fantasy. His targeting of Lisbeth is more than circumstance. He selects her because he knows society won’t care. Her status is in his hands; she is in his “care.” He exerts his power before the handcuffs come out, before he makes his way around the desk.

Bjurman is detestable, but I respect Yorick van Wageningen’s performance. (Not exactly a choice part.) Yorick doesn’t render Bjurman as “evil,” but as human and terrifyingly real. Yorick adopts a manner and formality that feels particularly upsetting. He intimidates Lisbeth, then elicits her into oral sex as a mode of social “transaction.” And when he rapes her, he tries to offer her a ride home as if him being cordial cancels out his treatment of her and thus gives himself justification to escalate. These are passive attempts at normalizing abusive behavior, which give a frightening sense of how abuse scandals have pervaded in institutions that are supposed to provide care.

The film’s rape scene is unforgiving as ever, as it should be. It also feels a tad excessive given how a guy like Taylor Sheridan has shown remarkably less in Wind River and still conveys the cruelty of rape. Jean-Marc Valee clips the act in both Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects and instead internalizes it within the POV of the characters – less about the rape, more about the lingering trauma. Yet I commend Fincher, Yorick, and Rooney Mara for going there. (Lisbeth’s wail is disconcerting and heartbreaking.) It’s a scene constructed for viewers to turn away, to be repulsed, offended by and reel under. Rape, after all, is an offensive idea about power and control. The scene is not about uprooting your moral compass so much as making sure you have one.

Movies present viewers with the fantasy of inhabiting a world. With Dragon Tattoo, you don’t want to be in Stockholm any longer than you have to. (Even though our very real society doesn’t offer much comfort.) This is a place full of cold cases and cold shoulders. If I can make a complaint, it’s that I have some issues with the film’s glacial pacing.

Dragon Tattoo bears a five-act structure that necessitates its plot, but not everything in the narrative is necessary. I don’t need the Wennerstrom subplot or watch him go down because Mikael and Lisbeth’s takedown of Martin has already provided all the narrative satisfaction. (Wennerstrom only needs to serve the purpose of Blomkvist’s shot-credibility.) The Irene Nesser episode might be a display of Lisbeth’s steadfast determination, but it’s a thing we already see when, after the rape, she goes to the hardware store and purchases her revenge-kit. Though I love where the film ends, I feel like the movie could just as well end with Henrik and Harriet’s reunion.

Dragon Tattoo is in many ways bound and gagged by its fidelity to the source material. Fight Club and Gone Girl, by comparison, feel like transformations. The film might be longer than it needs to be, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it boring. At the very least, you get to settle in.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won an Oscar for their work on Social Network, but Dragon Tattoo is their magnum opus – a 3-hour score seething with melancholy and rage. It’s Sweden in sonic-form. Blomkvist’s arrival in Hedestead is painstakingly rendered through Jeff Cronenweth’s pristine cinematography, brutally capturing the harsh snow-capped landscape. Before you even get to Hedestad, you want to leave. The effect is sold moreover by the accompanying score, which paints the Vanger estate like The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Shivering sirens, bells rippling and crystallizing; up until Dragon Tattoo I didn’t know what ice sounded like. It sounds like this.

Dragon Tattoo may be all about its heroine, but the film does allow Daniel Craig to play noir detective. He makes for a compelling Jake Gittes from Chinatown. Blomkvist’s disgraced reputation is key. Craig’s annoyance and exasperation is a nuanced thing to behold, as is his quiet astonishment in scenes with Herr Vanger and especially this moment above with his daughter. This was just after his macho-turn in Cowboys & Aliens and a year before Skyfall. Here, Craig is the Bond girl, the damsel, the one caught in a love triangle.

Fincher cares about Salander and Blomkvist, but I know Fincher is fascinated by Martin Vanger. As he’s gotten older, Fincher cares less about gruesome crime scenes and seems more interested in the psychology behind gruesome crime scenes. Fincher keys in on digitized black-and-white photos and on minute scene and character details. The way Stellan Skarsgard is lit tells you all you need to know about him. You could mute his scenes and still register that Martin is the killer based on shadows and the deep crevices beneath his eyes. Dragon Tattoo marks a fascinating evolution in Fincher’s career where he is less engrossed with violence and more in violent behavior. It’s no wonder he’d go on to direct Mindhunter.

The biggest casualty in Sony’s rebooting of the franchise is the loss of Rooney Mara as the title-character. Lisbeth Salander is to Rooney Mara what The Joker is to Heath Ledger’s filmography. She’s iconic from the moment she pulls up to the building. What I love about Mara’s performance isn’t the accent (which is perfect by the way) or the physical transformation (also perfect). It’s how Mara captures Lisbeth in a single glance.

It’s this moment below, a brief but poignant moment of vulnerability. Without words, Mara communicates how much Lisbeth cares and truly cares about Palmgren, her guardian who unbeknownst to her has just suffered a stroke. It’s a soft spot she’s allowed herself to have and it ruins her the same way her attachment to Blomkvist will ruin her. We understand her fortitude and the walls she puts up. We don’t doubt how resilient Lisbeth is, but we feel her heartbreak in the tiny moments she allows herself to feel.

She may be beaten and battered around, but she’s never beat or battered internally. She’s determined as hell, and that never stops giving me goosebumps. Mara’s interpretation of Lisbeth Salander is one of my favorite performances of all time because it’s about the person she’s playing, not the fact that she, the actress, is playing the person. I might see Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joel Kinnaman and Christopher “Clutch” Plummer. When it comes to Lisbeth, you just see the girl.

It’s a shame Fincher never got to see through to The Girl Who Played with Fire and subsequent Hornets’ Nest. Both are more about Lisbeth, her twin sister, her father and the rest of her fucked up family history, which would’ve enabled Fincher to go full Chinatown with the story. Dragon Tattoo, instead, allowed him to play within the framework of past films like Se7en and Zodiac, and that’s not a bad in-between. Sony has moved on to The Girl in the Spider’s Web and it’ll no doubt appeal to fans of the revamped Millennium series (and especially to Claire Foy-stans). Fincher didn’t get to helm his R-rated blockbuster franchise after all, but it was pretty damn great while it lasted.


5 thoughts on “In Praise of David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

  1. I’ve seen Spider’s Web and while I’m a fan of Claire Foy, Rooney’s interpretation is vastly superior. She felt like her own character, whereas the reboot feels akin to Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher. Which isn’t terrible per se, but it sacrifices what made Lisbeth so interior and compelling. David Fincher has done better movies, but I keep coming back to Dragon Tattoo every now and then. It’s so sleek and moody, perfect for this time of year!

    Glad you’re back btw 😉

    1. Much appreciated. The swell of support from everyone was so shocking. Heather URGED me to get back on and I thought she was kidding. I literally spent last month replying to everybody. It was incredibly supportive. You especially.

      Fincher’s films are usually more narratively efficient, but even for a painstakingly faithful adaptation, Dragon Tattoo is still a fascinating watch. Haven’t seen Spider’s Web and I don’t think I will, but I’ll take your word for it. Even when Lisbeth is making ramen, she’s fucking captivating. This is a long shot, but here’s hoping Hollywood will pull one of those hey-let’s-forget-we-rebooted-this-franchise-and-go-back-to-the-original with Dragon Tattoo. A guy can dream.

      Now that Christmas is on the horizon, I can add this movie to my holiday movie marathon. Not even joking.

      1. Oh I’m so glad you and Heather hit it off! When you mentioned hiring a social media manager, I immediately thought of her. She’s a guru. (Is this heather I’m talking to now? jk)

        I don’t know about this being a Christmas movie, but that would be so on brand for you to do. Gosh, the film’s ending too. You’d have to do a back to back with It’s a Wonderful life just to cheer up!

  2. This would be the topic of your return post. Nice to see that you’re back at it. I steered clear of this film in account of its rape scene, but from the few clips I’ve seen it looked much more polished than the Swedish version. US budgets, man.

    Spider’s Web didn’t do so well here in Australia and I hear it didn’t in the US either. Kind of a bummer because I rather like Fede Alvarez as a filmmaker. Suddenly, Don’t Breathe 2 doesn’t seem like such a bad idea

    1. Indeed it would be! It’s astonishing you remembered. I wrote my first review of this film so long ago.

      I LOVE Fede as a filmmaker too. His Evil Dead remake is fucking 👌 and Don’t Breathe is easily one of the best modern horror films. It’s not that I was rooting for Spider’s Web to fail. I just…had zero-interest in it. Not sure what’ll become of the “Dragon Tattoo” franchise, but I am looking forward to Don’t Breathe 2 even more so. Crossing fingers that Fede will direct 🤞

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