Adapting mystery novels for the screen is tricky. The detailed exposition that flows so naturally on the page requires conversion into images and sounds; the filmmakers have to make the story lucid enough for audiences to follow without the ability to flip back for reference, but confusing enough that we’re as confused as the professional detective with whom we’re meant to identify. Plus, the whole thing has to be watchable and entertaining.
In their new adaptation of Steig Larsson’s 2005 novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian do only a passable job of drawing us into the mystery, but do a sensational job of entertaining us with a movie that’s as watchable as a GIF of Beyoncé dancing out of her dress.
The plot has journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the 40-year-old mystery of his missing niece. For support, he enlists Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a brilliant but traumatized young woman whose Goth-punk style includes a…right, you’ve got it.
Dragon Tattoo is another triumph for Fincher, riding high on the success of The Social Network (2010) and now by general consensus one of the defining directors of his generation. He’s known for his heart-pounding pace and his sweepingly confident camera work, but his secret weapon has always been his way with actors—including his sure eye for casting. That’s what carries him here, in what’s stylistically a much more straightforward outing than Social Network or the films that built his reputation, including Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002).
Mara, who made a strong impression as Mark Zuckerberg’s indignant Boston University girlfriend in the opening scene of Social Network, sizzles here in a performance that’s all the more impressive because she commands your attention playing a character who wants desperately to disappear. Wide-eyed, she perpetually has the look of someone who was on her way out the door but then stopped to look back and is still trying to figure out why.
One reason why is Craig, also perfectly cast as a man whose personal life is a wreck because he saves his passion and his humanity for his work. His character and Mara’s seem an unlikely couple, but their relationship plays completely plausibly because we see that for each of them, with anyone else there would just be too much bullshit.
The film ends on a note of ambiguity that sets a conflict to be resolved in the coming sequels (Larsson wrote a trilogy before his 2004 death), but that also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the mystery. In this tricky genre, that’s the neatest trick of all.