At a key moment late in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, a character is offered the choice between doing the sensible thing or doing the polite thing. He does the polite thing with dire consequences. The concept of politeness takes a beating in David Finchers turn at visualizing Stieg Larssons internationally successful crime novel of the same name, and in the process, the breakdown of civilization as a whole can be traced back to thousand tiny hypocrisies of daily life done in the name of keeping society running smoothly. It takes an asocial heroine to clean up the mess.
There is a distinctly Old Testament quality to the doings in here, particularly the sort of justice that the title character metes out. The world in which Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) lives is one where the those in authority at best mean well, and at worst, enjoy, in every sense of the word, a moral bankruptcy of the most pernicious variety. With her sullen gaze, defiant attitude, and brutal honesty delivered with the economy of someone who finds her fellow creatures a waste of her time, Lisbeth takes matters large and small into her own hands with a ferocious self-sufficiency that leaves the audience gasping with both horror and a provocative delight not entirely undiluted with envy. Likable, no, but impossible to easily dismiss.
The mystery at the heart of the film involves an adolescent girl missing for 40 years, the dysfunctional family headed by her industrialist great-uncle Heinrich Vanger (Christopher Plummer), and the disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) hired by Vanger to crack both the case and the further mystery of the birthday presents that have continued to arrive and that can only have been sent by the murderer. Vanger offers not just money, but also the goods on the financier who sued Blomkvist over his expose on him and won the case. Lisbeth, originally hired by Vanger to investigate Blomkvist, is eventually hired by him when the cold case turns hot, and then dangerous.
Director David Fincher and screenwriter Stephen Zaillian embrace Lisbeths darkness the way Lisbeth herself embraces the assumption of her insanity by those around her. Both turn it to their respective advantages, with an elegant, effective simplicity. Rooney is as fearless as her character, defying the audience to like her but never allowing that audience to dismiss her. Craig is cerebral, emotional, and hopelessly conventional, a trait that will be Blomkvists undoing in a story that hinges on civilizations instinctive need to cling tenaciously to the appearance of social norms, and the corruption that such a need allows to fester. The veneer offers Fincher and company a canvas on which to exploit the tension of the unseen as outsider Blomkvist uses the lie of writing Heinrichs memoirs to trick the other members of the Vanger family, few of whom speak to one another, into revealing more than they should about what happened that fateful day 40 years ago. The twists are jolting, and not a little satisfying, as expectations are subverted, starting with Craig, in a very un-Bond turn, playing the damsel of the piece, even assuming the trope of stumbling while running from danger, and continuing with Rooneys laconic knight in shining black leather and even shinier, not to mention profuse, piercings.
The script, spiked with a spare but cathartic black humor, has a deliberate, but not plodding pace as it savors the kind of small details that propel a thriller that is intellectual, not bombastic. An evil atmosphere of pervasive dystopia underscores the proceedings, reflecting the savage extremes of both Lisbeths personality and the ugly secrets ruthlessly uncovered in the course of the investigation, and the even uglier manifestations and ramifications of them.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is as uncompromising as Lisbeth. Dark, endlessly surprising, unexpectedly touching, its an anti-holiday film that somehow embraces elements of what those holidays really are and what they ought to be.