Dragon Tattoo is disturbing but not gratuitous

When he decided to take on Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher already had two strikes against him in the court of public opinion. First off there were the foreign film snobs complaining that the book had already been made into a film in its native Swedish rendering an Americanized version irrelevant. Secondly popular novels don’t always make for great film. You can end up with a masterpiece like The Godfather or more likely a critical failure like The Da Vinci Code .

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may not be The Godfather but it certainly isn’t irrelevant. Whereas the 2009 Swedish film felt somewhat limp and had a made-for-TV air about it (save for a spot-on performance from lead actress Noomi Rapace) Fincher’s version of the Swedish whodunit is Cinema with a capital “C.” Big and bold the director makes the morbid investigative work of a middle-aged writer and an anti-social computer hacker — not exactly heroes meant for the big screen — seem riveting at every turn.

Following the book nearly to the letter The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo follows magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he is invited by Henrik Vanger a rich businessman (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a family murder that took place 40 years ago. Meanwhile researcher Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has been asked by Vanger to do a background check on Blomkvist. The two eventually intersect leaving the audience with a fairly standard crime story that could fit into a mid-season episode of Law and Order: SVU .

So what has made this unremarkable murder mystery an international phenomenon? Clearly the appeal lies in the character of Salander who has been heralded as a crusader by feminists outsiders and the socially awkward. Angry despondent and at turns unflinchingly violent Mara brings Salander to life as if she was manifested directly from the late Larsson’s brain. Mara’s Salander is a woman of few words but many intense glares and her performance certainly rivals that of Rapace. Fierce moody and uncompromising Mara embodies Salander in a way few could have predicted.

In fact all of Fincher’s casting is inspired (Stellan Skarsgård makes the perfect Martin Vanger) as is his choice to set the film in Sweden rather than Americanize the story. The subject matter is dark and the cold grey countryside and endless cups of coffee complement the story. There are graphic scenes and Fincher does not flinch when it comes to some of the underlying themes of the book (Larsson originally titled it Men Who Hate Women ) but while they are hard to watch they never seem gratuitous or voyeuristic.

Clocking in at over two hours Fincher isn’t exactly sparse but he also doesn’t waste any time. Even for those who have read the book and know the inevitable outcome it’s a tense and suspenseful ride. More true to his darker material than last year’s The Social Network The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is classic Fincher in the vein of Zodiac or Fight Club only with a hugely successful novel and a year’s worth of anticipation backing it up. Hopefully he can maintain that balance of big-budget blockbuster and dark tension when it comes time for the next two instalments in the trilogy.