David Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

Academy Award wins: Best Editing

The late 2000’s was a golden era for young adult fiction in both the novel and film mediums. Just look at the runaway success of the TWILIGHT series or THE HUNGER GAMES—books or films. Doesn’t matter, because they both are equally prominent within their respective mediums. Despite your personal stance on these properties (trust me, I want them gone and buried just as much as you), you can’t deny their impact on pop culture. During this time, another book series and subsequent set movie adaptations captivated an admittedly older set—Stieg Larsson’s MILLENNIUM trilogy. Named after the muckracking news magazine that central character Mikael Blomvkist works for, the books (and movies) comprise three titles: “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”. In 2009, the first of the Swedish film adaptations came out based on “Dragon Tattoo”, featuring newcomer Noomi Rapace in a starmaking turn as the series’ cyperpunk heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

As the Swedish film trilogy proved successful both at home and abroad, it was inevitable that the major US studios would remake the property for American audiences. The task fell to Sony Pictures, who set up THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with super-producer Scott Rudin overseeing a screenplay by esteemed writer Steve Zaillian. Rudin’s natural choice for a director was David Fincher, who he had previously worked on the very successful THE SOCIAL NETWORK(2010) with. Fincher was drawn to the story of two mismatched misfits trying to solve a decades old murder, despite his misgivings that he had become the go-to guy for serial killer films after the success of SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007). The tipping point came in Fincher’s realization that he would be at the helm of one of the rarest projects in mainstream studio filmmaking: a hard R-rated franchise. As expected, Fincher delivered a top-notch film with Oscar-caliber performances and effortless style. For whatever reason, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO didn’t connect with audiences, and its lackluster box office performance probably aborted any further plans for completing the trilogy.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is structured differently than most other thrillers, in that it eschews the traditional three-act design in favor of five acts. This might be perhaps why the film floundered in the United States, where audiences have been subliminally conditioned to accept the ebb and flow of three acts as acceptable narrative form. The film’s first half tells a two-pronged story, with one thread following Mikael Blomvkist (Daniel Craig)—a disgraced journalist who has recently lost a high-profile lawsuit against wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. After taking some time off from his co-editor gig at news magazine Millennium, he is approached by Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a rival of Wennestrom’s and a wealthy industrialist in his own right. Vanger brings Blomvkist to his sprawling estate in rural Hedestat under the auspices of authoring a book of his memoirs. However, the true purpose of Blomvkist’s employment is much more compelling—to try and solve the decades-old case of Henrick’s granddaughter Harriet, who went missing in the 1960’s and is presumed killed. Blomvkist takes up residence in a guest cottage on the property and dutifully begins poring over the family records and taking testimony from the various relatives, some of who have shady ties to the Nazi Party in their pasts.

Meanwhile in Stockholm, a young computer expert named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) grapples with the fallout of her foster father’s debilitating stroke. She’s forced to meet with state bureaucrats for evaluation of her mental faculties and state of preparedness for life on her own. Her case worker—a portly, morally-bankrupt man named Yils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen)—forces her to perform fellatio on him in exchange for rent money, his abuse eventually culminating in Salander’s brutal rape. However, he doesn’t expect Salander’s ruthlessness and resolve, made readily apparent when she returns the favor and rapes him right back.

Blomvkist requests the help of a research assistant, and in an ironic twist, is paired with Salander—- the very person who performed the background check on him prior to Vanger’s offer of employment. They make for an unlikely, yet inspired pairing—both professionally as well as sexually. Together, they set about cracking the case, only to discover their suspect is much closer—and much deadlier—than they could’ve imagined.

James Bond himself headlines Fincher’s pitch-black tale, but it’s a testament to Daniel Craig’s ability that we never are actually reminded of his secret agent exploits throughout the near-three-hour running time. Craig has been able to avoid the sort of typecasting that doomed others like Mark Hamill or Pierce Brosnan before him, simply because he refuses to let his roles define him. As disgraced journalist Mikael Blomvkist, he projects a slightly disheveled appearance (despite still being an ace fucking dresser). It may not be the most memorable role of his career but he turns in a solid, faultless performance regardless.

The true spotlight goes to Rooney Mara’s cold, antisocial hacker punk, Lisbeth Salander. Mara underwent a radical transformation for the role, even so far as getting real piercings, tattoos, dye jobs, even having her eyebrows bleached. Considering her previous collaboration with Fincher was as the squeaky-clean girl-next-door Erica Albright in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mara’s appearance in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is gut-level arresting. The depth of Mara’s talent is evident in her unflinching confrontation with the most brutal aspects of her character arc. By giving herself over to the role entirely, she’s able to take a character that was already so well-defined by Rapace in the Swedish versions and make it completely into her own. Her Best Actress nomination at the Oscars was very much deserved.

Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Robin Wright round out Fincher’s compelling cast. Plummer is convincing as Henrick Vanger, depicting the retired industrialist as a good-natured yet haunted old man, as well as a bit of a dandy. Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger is the current CEO of the family business, and his distinguished-gentleman persona cleverly hides his psychopathic, murderous inclinations. Wright plays Erika Berger, Blomvkist’s co-editor at Millennium and his on-again, off-again lover. Wright is by her nature an intelligent and savvy woman, as evidenced not just here but in her subsequent collaboration with Fincher in HOUSE OF CARDS as Kevin Spacey’s Lady MacBeth-ian spouse.

In keeping with Fincher’s affinity for digital filmmaking technology, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO takes advantage of the Red Epic digital cameras, the next generation of the type that THE SOCIAL NETWORK was shot on. The film is presented in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but again it is not true anamorphic. Besides being a reflection of Fincher’s general distaste for the limitations of anamorphic lenses, the shooting of the image in full-frame and the later addition of a widescreen matte in postproduction is a testament to Fincher’s need for control. This method allows him to compose the frame exactly as he wants, and the Red Epic’s ability to capture 5000 lines of resolution allows him an even greater degree of precision in zooming in on certain details, blowing up the image, or re-composing the shot without any loss in picture quality. This technology also affords better image stabilization without any of the warping artifacts that plague the process.

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth returns for his third collaboration with Fincher, having replaced original director of photography Fredrik Backar eight weeks into the shoot for reasons unknown. Despite his initial position as a replacement DP, Cronenweth makes the picture his own, with his efforts rewarded by another Oscar nomination. Fincher’s signature aesthetic is very appropriate for the wintery subject matter, his steely color palette of blues, greens and teals evoking the stark Swedish landscape— even warmer tones are dialed back to a cold yellow in Fincher’s hands. The high contrast visuals are augmented by realistically placed practical lights that suggest cavernous interiors. Fincher’s sedate camera eschews flash in favor of locked-off, strong compositions and observant, calculated dolly work. When the camera moves, it really stands out in an affecting way.

Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the shot where Craig’s Blomvkist is in the car approaching Vanger’s extravagant mansion for the first time. Presented from the forward-travelling POV of the car itself, the mansion grows larger in the center of frame— the symmetrical framing conceit suggesting ominous perfection. The fact that the camera is stabilized makes for a smooth foreboding shot that takes any sort of human element out of the equation and replaces it with a fundamentally uneasy feeling. In the commentary for the film, Fincher cites a favorite book from childhood, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—the sequence in which Harker approaches Dracula’s Castle serving as inspiration for his approach to this particular shot. The connection is certainly not lost on this writer. Like several key shots in Fincher’s larger filmography, the Vanger Estate Approach (as I like to call it) would become a tastemaker shot that has not only been copied in his successive project HOUSE OF CARDS, but in subsequent pop culture works by other artists as well.

Production designer Donald Graham Burt returns for his fourth Fincher film, artfully creating an authentic sense of place in the Swedish locations while showing off his impeccable taste and eye for detail. Editing team Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter are key collaborators within Fincher’s filmography, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO would become their second consecutive Oscar win for editing under the director’s eye. Their work for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO really utilizes the advantages that digital filmmaking has to offer in realizing Fincher’s vision and creating a tone that’s moody but yet unlike conventional missing-person thrillers. Angus and Wall establish a patient, plodding pace that draws the audience deeper into the mystery before they’re even aware of it, echoing Blomvkist’s own growing obsession with the case.

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his music partner Atticus Ross reprise their scoring duties, giving the musical palette of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO an appropriately electronic and cold, wintery feeling. Primarily achieved via a recurring motif of atonal bells and ambient soundscapes, the score is also supplemented by a throbbing, heartbeat-like percussion that echoes Salander’s simmering anger as well as the encroaching danger at hand. One of Reznor’s masterstrokes is his reworking of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the opening credits and trailer, featuring vocals by Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. Given a new coat of industrial electronic grunge, the rearrangement instantly conveys the tone and style of the film.

Fincher’s needledrops are few and far between in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but one sourced music track stands out because of the sheer audaciousness of its inclusion. In the scene where Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger tortures Blomvkist in anticipation of butchering his prey, he fires up the basement’s stereo system and plays, of all songs, Enya’s Orinoco Flow. I remember the moment getting a huge laugh in the theatre, and rightfully so—the song is just so cheesy and stereotypically Nordic that it acts as a great counterpoint to the sheer darkness of the scene’s events. The laughter instead becomes a nervous sort of chuckle, the kind we employ to hide a certain kind of fundamental unease and anxiety. Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce was nominated for another Oscar with his standout mix, taking this noxious brew of sounds and turning it into a razor-sharp sonic landscape that complements Fincher’s visuals perfectly.

On its face, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO doesn’t seem like it would call for a substantial amount of computer-generated visual effects. Fincher’s background in VFX results in the incorporation of a surprisingly large quantity of effects shots. Almost every exterior shot during the Vanger sequences has some degree of digital manipulation applied to it in the way of subtle matte paintings, scenery extensions and weather elements that blend together seamlessly in conveying Fincher’s moody vision and desire for total control over his visuals.

His affinity for imaginative opening title sequences continues here, in what is arguably his most imaginative effort to date. Set to the aforementioned “Immigrant Song” cover, the sequence plays like a dark nightmare version of those iconic James Bond title sequence, depicting key moments from the film in abstract, archetypical form as a thick black ooze splashes around violently. The choice to incorporate a black on black color scheme is undeniably stylish.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO sees Fincher at the peak of his punk and technological aesthetic explorations. While not Fincher’s creation, the character of Lisbeth Salander fits in quite comfortably within his larger body of work—the culmination of a long flirtation with punk culture. She is most certainly the product of the cyberpunk mentality, which values not only rebelliousness but technological proficiency as well. Unlike other depictions of this subculture in mass media, it’s easy to see that Fincher obviously respects it for what it is and aims to portray them in a realistic manner. He builds upon the downplayed foundation he laid in THE SOCIAL NETWORK here by refusing to generate fake interfaces for Salander to use. He shows Salander actively Googling things, looking up people on Wikipedia, etc—he doesn’t shy away from showing corporate logos and interfaces as they appear in real life. While a lot of people have a problem with blatant product placement, I can respect a director who doesn’t go out of his way to hide (or aggressively feature for that matter) brands and logos when depicting a realistic world. After all, we live in a world awash with corporate branding, so why pretend it doesn’t exist?

Fincher’s body of work is defined by a distinctly nihilistic attitude towards story and character, even though I don’t believe he’s nihilistic himself. With THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in particular, these sentiments are a prominent part of the storytelling. These protagonists are morally flawed people who aren’t afraid of doing bad things to get ahead. They’re mostly atheists, and they don’t care whether you like them or not. The themes of abuse that run through the narrative also reflect this overarching mentality, playing out in the form of authority figures exerting their influence and selfish desires over the women that depend on them. We see this reflected both on the bureaucratic level with Salander’s lecherous case worker, as well as on the familial level in Harriet Vanger’s repeated rape and abuse at the hands of her brother and father.

Architecture plays a subtle, yet evocative role in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. One of the core themes of the story is the clash between new Sweden (Salander’s weapons-grade sexual ambiguity and technical proficiency) and old Sweden (the Vanger family’s moneyed lifestyle and sprawling compound). This clash is echoed in the architecture that Fincher chooses to present. The Vanger estate consists of classical Victorian stylings and rustic cottages; compare that to the harsh lines and modern trappings Martin Vanger’s minimalist cliffside residence (all clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass), as well as the whole of Stockholm—very much the model of a modern European city. In showing us this duality of place and time, Fincher is able to draw a line that also points us directly to the narrative’s major emphasis on the duality of man.

Despite THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’s impeccable pedigree and unimpeachable quality, it was a modest disappointment at the box office. It opened at a disadvantage, placing third on its debut weekend and never rising above it during the rest of its run. There were, of course, the inevitable comparisons to the original series of film adaptations, with purists preferring them over Fincher’s “remake”. Having seen Fincher’s version before I ever touched the originals, I quickly found that I couldn’t get through the first few minutes of the Swedish opening installment—Fincher’s execution, to me, was so much more superior in every way that it made the originals look like cheap TV movies of the week. Unfortunately, we will probably never get to see what Fincher would have done with the remaining two entries in the series, as the poor box office performance of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO most likely put the kibosh on further installments. But, as I’ve come to discover again and again since I’ve started this essay series project, time has a way of revealing the true quality of a given work. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is only three years old as of this writing, but the groundswell of appreciation is already growing—hailing the film as the most underrated in Fincher’s filmography and an effort on par with his best work.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures.

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Credits:
Produced by: Eli Bush, Cean Chaffin, Berna Levin, Scott Rudin, Soren Staermose, Ole Sondberg
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Edited by: Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter
Music by: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Sound design by: Ren Klyce