(David Fincher, 2011)
An object lesson in what a strong director can bring to questionable source material.
Stieg Larsson's mega-bestseller and the literary phenomenon it sparked - the rest of the Millennium trilogy - were posthumously published, which may well account for the repetitive sloppiness of much of the writing. The Swedish adaptation from 2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, plays like a tv movie, stylistically mundane, dramatically plodding, enlivened only by Noomi Rapace's performance as Lisbeth Salander.
Salander is the key to the success of the books. A truly iconic lead character, excitingly modern (a bisexual goth-punk hacker-biker) yet with an uncomplicated moral worldview and the aggressive personality required to take on the evils which cross her path, any filmmaker who gets her right has a good chance of making a watchable film. Well, watchable isn't enough for Fincher. Currently operating at something like peak level, in that few other directors on earth so consistently excel on a scene-by-scene basis, he (alongside screenwriter Steve Zaillian) elevates and inflates this parlor detective story into a dark, classy thriller, full of incidental pleasures.
They also get Salander right. Much of that is down to strong work from Rooney Mara, who makes her a little more vulnerable than she is in the books or in Oplev and Rapace's version. Only a little vulnerable, however. Her righteous vengeance upon her rapist case worker and final heist are infused here with an almost mischievous sense of fun. She enjoys getting her own back, it seems, and is unapologetic about her looks or difficult personality. The slight, slow thaw we see in her here is down to her relationship with her research partner, and she communicates much behind Salander's consistent poker face.
Daniel Craig is solid as Larsson's glamourised self-portrait, Mikael Blomkvist, coasting along on his now-unquestionable leading man qualities, and displaying a good ability to let us see him figuring things out. The rest of the cast - mainly a solid roster of experienced British thespians - are effortlessly convincing, with the (somewhat jarringly) single Scandinavian Stellan Skarsgaard as good as ever.
The real star here, of course, is Fincher. Evoking the chilly Swedish winter with an enviable, thrillingly textured feel for place and mood, he makes his film unfailingly beautiful without it ever seeming ostentatious or without any effect upon his storytelling. The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross helps a lot, a series of atmospheric pieces, hammering percusision, and queasy synth effects combining nicely with Fincher and Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth's sublimely lit and composed frames.
It may be a largely dazzling experience, then, but there are flaws here. The running time is grotesquely extended for such a disposable thriller, the almost exploitative nastiness present in passages seems damagingly at odds with the theme of "Men Who Hate Women" (the Swedish title of the novel), and there is the unmistakeable whiff of Murder She Wrote or even Scooby-Doo in tired scenarios like the killer explaining his own motivations and methods to his intended victim (and, obviously the audience).
Worst of all, Fincher is such a great talent, a project like this feels like a waste of him. Hopefully he'll do something riskier and more interesting next time..