Not exactly lean, but plenty mean, David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mystery novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo judiciously pares down 480 pages to 158 minutes. It’s hard not to feel Fincher’s film is old news, after Larsson’s widely read Millenium trilogy (2005-2007) and the corresponding Swedish films starring Noomi Rapace as the punk hacker hero Lisbeth Salander. On the other hand, this is the film the novel has been waiting for: a crisp handling of the complex narrative that’s never less than visually striking or impeccably acted (money talks, eloquently).
The film is so well made that the onus immediately shifts back onto the source material, which probably would have seemed disposable had Larsson not died, at age 50, in 2004 (bad for Larsson, a marketing coup for his work). Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, the first novel establishes a blatant theme of victimization of women, with the damaged Lisbeth positioned as a Gothic avenging angel. For some, this has made her a feminist hero; for others, she’s the font of cheap thrills at the center of exploitative pulp fiction.
One thing is clear: Lisbeth is a vivid and compelling character. A kind of superheroic sociopath in black leather and piercings, Lisbeth suffers no fools, unless as a means to the fool’s ignominious end. She’s antisocial as a rule, but lovingly loyal to a few, including lovers of both sexes and her legal guardian (due to her criminal past, she’s a ward of the state). With fierce focus, Rooney Mara (The Social Network) disappears into the role, ironically at the behest of a notoriously demanding male director.
Lisbeth serves as a most modern detective, trading laptop for magnifying glass. Demonstrating God-like omnipotence and a distinctly personal set of ethics, she investigates disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, superbly understated) on behalf of wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Later, she will team with Blomkvist to solve a “locked room mystery” for Vanger: who among his horrid family killed his great-niece Harriet almost forty years ago on the family’s cut-off island estate, and how did the body disappear?
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay effectively intercuts between Salander and Blomkvist as they take care of business, much of hers involving carefully plotted revenge against an abusive new guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). Fincher is perfectly suited to the material, with its voluminous clues to be organized and parsed, its emotional austerity, and its serial murder, rape, and sundry sick plot twists.
Though the mystery cannot hope to engross as deeply as it does on the page, Fincher’s version is intelligent, properly moody, and faithful enough, excepting a bothersome simplification to the resolution and one amusing, ironic detail: in the novels, Larsson made a point of Lisbeth compulsively eating “Billy’s Pan Pizzas,” but in Fincher’s film, the scowling biker eats Happy Meals.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]