An argument that intermittently came up as critics parsed through the 158 minutes of the ferocious The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was that the subject matter was somehow beneath David Fincher, who by now has distinguished himself irrefutably as one of America's best and, more importantly, most modernly attuned filmmakers. It's a familiar argument, once used to dismiss various works by Howard Hawks, John Ford, Jacques Tourneur, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, and dozens of other titans of the form. And it remains, as ever, a frustratingly close-minded view of filmmaking, one that brazenly stresses the role of screenwriters and those who come up with the stories over the director and cinematographer.
Okay, so maybe Fincher doesn't quite have the canon to rival Hawks, Ford or Tourneur, and for many critics and cinephiles alike, hindsight is some mighty strong medicine, able to lend clarity through age or erase the memory of a bad viewing experience. And coming off of what is arguably the biggest movie of his career thus far, perhaps sights were set just a little higher for Fincher than an elongated yet rigorously kinetic noir brimming with torture, rape, infidelity, murder, Nazis, and espionage. But who says that the investigation into the nest of cobras known as the Vanger family by the lethal, impersonal, and brilliant Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and the seasoned, wise, and disgraced Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) should be taken at face value?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo deals in modern transitions—from print to the web, from religious intolerance to pure sadism and hate, from solitary power to meaningful but vulnerable relationships—in similar ways that The Social Network dealt in transitions of identity, business, class, intelligence, and creativity. And, in a bold move, Fincher's diabolical atmospheric thriller actively and rousingly indulges in pulpier notches that might not have been found in Stieg Larsson's bestseller, such as a masterful killer delighting in an Enya track as he prepares a victim for slaughter. It also, not unlike Zodiac, owes a bit of debt to Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men in the way the poring over of codes, files, parchment, photographs, digital photogaphs, scribblings, notebooks, and dates is made positively thrilling, able even to match the scenes of methodical torture, anal rape, car chases, visceral intimidations, fistfights, explosions, and gallows humor not necessarily found in Pakula's film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo moves forward thematically from Zodiac and The Social Network in an assured and thought-provoking manner, both in style and substance, and yet it has somehow accrued a reputation as “minor” Fincher. The thrust of the film is largely an investigation into, as Blomkvist relates it, “a killer of women,” but it's blended with more endearing, emotionally complex material: a warm gesture perceived as a taunt by an aging titan, a tale of redemption and revenge for Mikael, and Lisbeth's seemingly endless attempts to remind men not to fuck so flagrantly with women. And yet, Fincher's film never feels laborious or overstuffed, which puts it in stark contrast to Niels Arden Oplev's hollow Swedish adaptation. Each of the film's weighty subjects, themes, and points of subtext run together, in parallel, like a pack of hungry wolves struck by the stink of blood in the air.
The Vanger family, led by Christopher Plummer's Henrik and Stellan Skarsgård's Martin, is old money, as opposed to the new money of Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), the nefarious entrepreneur who shames Blomvkist in court, and as much as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a film about transitions, it's also a work of the most tremendous and classical of conflicts. Stunningly shot on the RED One by Jeff Cronenweth, the film is given stark, beautiful, and immense space within which to let these conflicts come to bare, and yet the overarching genre facets give it a coherence and simplicity that at once enables and belies the depth of its intelligence.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a masterful work of narrative mechanics, set in motion by Steven Zaillian's superb script and orchestrated with precision by Fincher. So, how is it lesser than the director's past works? Because its dense interplay of genre tropes and heady themes isn't as immediately noticeable as The Social Network's? Perhaps, in the digital age, those who are so quick to denounce the heightened pace of media, social and otherwise, are ironically too busy looking for the latest flash-in-the-pan filmmaker to appreciate the continuing work of one that refuses to stop challenging himself and furthering his deeply personal artistic vision.
Having seen (and purchased) the Blu-ray as well, I can attest that it offers a far more dazzling transfer than the DVD, but that's to be expected. Sony's DVD transfer is, all told, highly admirable and is a fine way to view David Fincher's film. The use of grays, blacks, dark blues, and whites (along with the occasional tans and beiges) is beautifully highlighted, as is Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth's brilliant use of light. Detail and clarity aren't perfect, but rarely are distracting enough to merit major complaint. The audio is equally excellent, with the sharp, rapid dialogue out front and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's great moody score balanced with sound effects and the occasional piece of music in the back of the mix. Not the best way to see it, but it's far more than a competent transfer.
Fincher's commentary is the only extra available, but it's a hugely rewarding listen. The filmmaker goes over an astonishingly varied amount of topics, including the film's fantastic opening credits sequence and the preparation of all the physical detail and evidence in the film, and offers ample insight into his creative process. He's clear, engaging, and contemplative, not unlike his films, and though this is the lone extra, it's preferable to a bucket of half-hearted featurettes.
David Fincher's reputation as the best modern American director is further reinforced by a strong DVD transfer of this, his latest, most underappreciated masterwork.