Why David Fincher Was the Perfect Director for 'Dragon Tattoo'

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The hallmarks of Fight Club, The Social Network, and other Fincher successes are in his fantastic new adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel

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At first glance, it’s hard to view the English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as much more than a flagrant attempt to cash in on the Millennium trilogy phenomenon. After all, the first of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novels was published in 2005 and the popular Swedish movie versions of each Girl book opened in the U.S. during 2010. We've seen plenty of offbeat investigator Lisbeth Salander and embattled journalist Mikael Blomkvist lately. What’s left to say?

That the new version of Larsson’s mystery works so well in spite of the familiarity can be attributed in part to its top-of-the-line cast, headlined by Rooney Mara as Salander and Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. But it’s mostly a testament to the strong influence of director David Fincher, who’s as far removed from a commercial hack as any filmmaker working in Hollywood.

There’s a good reason Fincher jumped straight from The Social Network to Dragon Tattoo, and it’s got nothing to do with money. This material is right in the filmmaker’s classic wheelhouse and he puts his distinct stamp on it in several key ways:

Stylish nightmare: Fincher is arguably the modern American master of the stylized, subversive thriller. Movies like Seven and Fight Club have pushed the boundaries of hard-R ratings in stories set against nightmarish backdrops. Seven offers Fincher’s twisted take on film noir, injecting the familiar milieu of cops and criminals with inexplicably gruesome brutality. Fight Club turns the antiseptic, corporatized modern world into a conduit for grotesque primordial rage.

Fincher plays up the contrast between the light white colors of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—well-lit modernist interiors and the snowy Swedish expanse—and the dark secrets eating away at the damaged characters investigating the murderous past of one of Sweden’s distinguished families, the Vangers. At the same time, the violence is depicted with a startling lack of inhibition. It’s unflinchingly brutal at the appropriate times and slyly twisted at others, especially when Enya’s music is brought into the mix.

Investigatory nuts and bolts: Seven and Zodiac are accomplished detective movies that offer hard-edged, realistic depictions of what it means to investigate a crime and become obsessed by it. While movies about police investigations often take less pleasure in the process than its cathartic end, Fincher revels in the day-to-day grind of breaking down and solving a mystery.

Dragon Tattoo is made in that same tradition. With its flurry of facts hurled at the viewer, fast-paced editing, and an overarching edgy, punk-rock sensibility, the film depicts two characters on a dark journey that matters far more than the ultimate destination. The filmmaker brings alive the experience of examining old photos, hacking into computer systems, and conducting interviews, imbuing it with the thrill of discovery.

Strong women: Every Fincher movie, from Alien 3 to Dragon Tattoo, features strong female characters. That’s true even in his most male-dominated films, like Fight Club or The Social Network. It’s no accident that the latter, for example, begins with a dialogue-heavy breakup scene, in which Erica Albright (played by Mara) shatters Mark Zuckerberg’s psyche, providing the impetus behind the initial creation of a Facebook-like website.

Few recent characters of any gender have been as unique as Lisbeth. After all, there’s a very short list of tattooed, pierced, bisexual, gun-toting hackers in the canon. An offbeat feminist hero, with a deep-rooted sense of self-worth that belies the misery surrounding her, she’s the perfect protagonist for Fincher.

And Mara, Fincher’s top choice for the part, imbues Lisbeth with equal doses of strength and vulnerability. It takes a lot of smart subtle acting to sell the character’s convolutions, such as her superhuman aptitude for finding out any dirt about anyone, while simultaneously imparting the complicated person beneath the hardened shell. Noomi Rapace did it in the Swedish adaptation, but Mara brings an extra dose of humanity to the part.

Psychological interplay: As much as any filmmaker this side of Christopher Nolan, Fincher’s movies burrow into the subconscious of their characters, imposing their troubled interior lives onto the shape of the events onscreen. Fight Club is the most obvious, elaborate example of this, but even the high-concept Panic Room and the otherwise reality-driven Social Network offer views of the world that are distorted by the characters’ emotions.

Consider what Fincher said (as reported by Movieline) of the Dragon Tattoo opening title sequence—a black-scale collage of haunting, inky images that will come into play during the movie, set to Trent Reznor's cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”: “I liked the idea of this sort of primordial tar or ooze of the subconscious, and I liked the idea that it was [Lisbeth’s] nightmare.”

That opening sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which dissects Lisbeth’s complications in the same ways it picks away at flashy exteriors to reveal the deep-rooted, multi-generational rot at the core of the Vanger family.

In other words, Fincher propels us into the grim interior lives of his characters, showing the dark heart beating within this “land of ice and snow,” as Zeppelin might have put it.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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