Stieg Larsson’s global best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was, to this reader, an insurmountable ziggurat of featureless prose, a run-of-the-mill serial-killer whodunit spiked with generous doses of nasty sexual violence. But if the book’s massive success remains perplexing, its appeal to director David Fincher—who has remade the workmanlike 2009 Swedish adaptation as a slick and somber Hollywood entertainment—is perfectly understandable. Fincher’s earlier serial-killer films, Se7en and Zodiac, evince a scholarly fascination with the infinite varieties of human depravity, along with an unapologetically sick imagination (remember Brad Pitt’s FedEx delivery at the end of Se7en?).
But even Fincher’s elegantly gruesome style can’t turn this Swedish noir into the meditation on evil and corruption that it fancies itself to be. The villains—aged Nazi partisans, unscrupulous industrialists, and slaveringly lecherous state-appointed guardians—are just too villainous, and the heroes—a muckraking journalist and an emotionally disturbed computer genius—too heroic. Fincher is a master of mood and atmosphere, but this chilly, efficient movie never transcends the shallowness of its source material.
Fans of the Larsson franchise often explain the books’ success by pointing to the intriguingly bizarre heroine Lisbeth Salander (here played by Rooney Mara, last seen wearing a Fair Isle sweater as Mark Zuckerberg's disenchanted ex in Fincher's The Social Network.) A bisexual hacker with multiple piercings, a dyed-black Mohawk, and a sullen, almost autistic lack of visible affect, Lisbeth is a feminist revenge fantasy personified, a perfect victim turned perfect executioner. A ward of the state for reasons that remain vague until late in the film, she’s forced by the man who controls her financial disbursements (Yorick van Wageningen) to perform humiliating sex acts in exchange for the money. When she takes her revenge on him, it’s swift, sudden, and seriously hard-core. This early scene sets the tone for what’s to come: Fincher wants us to be horrified by people who treat other people like pieces of meat, but he’s not above taking us on a guided tour of the abattoir.
The film’s other main thread, which takes a while to join up with Lisbeth’s, concerns Mikael Blomkvist (an even-more-muted-than-usual Daniel Craig), a reporter who’s gone on leave after being publicly disgraced in a libel suit. (Thankfully, this dull legal subplot has been whittled way down—the aftermath of the lawsuit played a large role in the book and always felt suspiciously like autobiographical score-settling on the part of the author, a former reporter himself.)
Because of his mad research skills (in Larsson’s world, crusading journalists enjoy a James Bond level of notoriety), Blomkvist is called in by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the wealthy patriarch of a Northern Swedish family, to investigate a 40-year-old cold case. After a family gathering in 1966, Vanger’s teenage great-niece Harriet abruptly vanished, never to be seen again. Vanger offers Blomkvist the use of a rustic cottage on his property and pays him handsomely to sort through old files, trying to find something the police may have missed.
The Vangers are an unpleasant lot—dour, unforthcoming, and, at least in the older generation, disturbingly prone to neo-Nazi affiliations. Blomkvist spends a long winter in mostly fruitless conversation with Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) and her cousin Anita (Joely Richardson), who’s moved to London with a secret of her own. But the investigation starts to pick up when Lisbeth, who was initially contracted by the Vangers to investigate Blomkvist’s background, joins him in his frigid cabin for some inspired Internet research and grimly unfun-looking sex.
The film’s strongest section centers on a series of photographs taken a few hours before Harriet’s disappearance. There’s some nifty Blow-Up-style business here as Blomkvist strings together these images, reconstructing the events of her last known day on earth. But these scenes hint at a satisfyingly moody procedural that this movie never quite becomes. When the truth about Harriet’s disappearance does emerge, it’s lurid without being particularly surprising, and the last quarter of the movie goes by in a blur of sensationally icky flashbacks and ickier comeuppances.
Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth in the 2009 Swedish version, was wiry but sturdily athletic; Mara’s Lisbeth is wraithlike and skeletal, with invisible bleached-out eyebrows and livid-white skin. It’s hard to tell whether Mara is really good in the role, or just looks good. Her Lisbeth is a triumph of freaky-Goth styling and attitude, but when, for example, she unsmilingly mounts the diffident Blomkvist, we have no idea why she suddenly wants to jump his bones (or why he lets her; given the wretched treatment this woman has received at the hands of men her whole life, wouldn’t the kindest reaction be one of polite deferral?).
To Fincher’s credit, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does look and sound stunning, with its stark Scandinavian snowscapes crisscrossed by sleek black motorcycles (Lisbeth’s preferred mode of transportation), and a tense, discordant score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The opening credit sequence, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O growling a Led Zeppelin song over the repeated image of thick black oil pouring over naked bodies, could stand alone as a killer music video. Fincher’s decision to have his actors speak with faint Scandinavian accents adds to the subtle sense of displacement—this is a universe where no one is at home, where something is slightly, unsettlingly off.
The title of the late Stieg Larsson’s novel translates to “men who hate women,” and it’s clearly this element that attracted Fincher to the material. But for all of its gloomy chic and carefully considered aesthetic choices, this clinical film seems curiously uninterested in women or, indeed, in people. The moral outrage at the center of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—the systematic rape and slaughter of pretty young girls? We’re agin it!—feels facile and inessential. Fincher eagerly rubs our faces in the movie's scenes of misogynist violence and degradation, but a few hours after leaving the theater, the oily film these images leave behind has all but washed away.