A man, recently humiliated for making unsubstantiated accusations against a public figure, is brought to a remote, frozen corner of Northern Sweden, an island of vast manors inhabited by the aging members of an industrial dynasty, some of them one-time Nazis, few of whom talk to each other anymore. The man has been asked by one of the family elders to research his memoir, but the real purpose of the research seems to be to discover what happened to a 16-year-old niece who vanished back in 1966.
As the man gets deeper into his increasingly precarious task (many within the family aren’t nice to him; one even shoots at him) he hires a young woman as an assistant—the same young woman who did an extremely thorough background check on the man for the family elder. Turns out they make a great team: he’s cool but affable, ruggedly handsome in his heavy knits, a sort of old school gumshoe type of investigative reporter, good with legwork and making contacts; she’s withdrawn and socially handicapped, a genius with data processing (she may even have a photographic memory) and swift with acts of necessary roughness, diminutive, with a pale, orphan-child face, multiple piercings and tatts, and, at times, an invincible mohawk. (How does her hair stay so vertical after wearing a motorcycle helmet?) The film they’re in has little time for conventional character development, so our rapid registering of their peculiar, quiet chemistry is important. The characters are embodied by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, whose performances, defined by such distinct choices in body language, appear effortless, or rather, all about attending to the task at hand. And that’s the sensibility driving The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in a nutshell: telling a story one task at a time; process, procedure, efficiency.
The hiring of director David Fincher for the English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s pulpy, often tawdry international bestseller is inspired. Very few filmmakers could simultaneously manage a production of this scale and bring to it such personal, unfussy finesse. Early scenes snow us with exposition and flashbacks, yet we get everything we need to, and even if we don’t it’s all quite compelling. There’s a great deal of ordinary work up on screen: googling, highlighting documents, scanning photos, thumbing through files, and all of it clips along like the tip-tapping of a crash cymbal. The mystery at the heart of this is genuinely interesting, the resolution pretty satisfying, but what animates The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the music of the mechanics of the investigation itself.
Fincher’s work underwent a seismic breakthrough with 2007’s Zodiac—a mystery that doesn’t even have a resolution!—and this new film takes its cues from that film, as well as 2010’s The Social Network. All these films are on the long side, all of them crammed with plot, all of them hugely dependent on pace, rhythm, dynamics, adrenaline. Dragon Tattoo isn’t the deepest thing Fincher’s made (its serial killer’s gimmicky showmanship mirrors one of the corniest/most shamelessly lurid elements of 1995’s Se7en) by it’s as engrossing as his best work. Even after two-and-a-half exhausting hours, I found myself eager to come back and see what Fincher and his cohorts do with the next installment of the trilogy.