David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rises to the level of its source material and no further, achieving no alchemical Silence of the Lambs-style transformation into something greater and more profound on screen than its luridly pulp print predecessor. Given how insanely popular that predecessor is, the odds are this adaptation will do well, and deservedly so — it does full justice to Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s irresistible, ridiculous creation, the semi-autistic bisexual genius punk hacker waif who partners up with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) when he tells her “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” Rooney Mara’s Salander is genuinely off — her antisocial tendencies are not portrayed as cute affectations, nor are her sartorial choices. She doesn’t look like a winsome starlet on whom a fake eyebrow piercing and a black t-shirt has been stuck, she looks a little scary, and more importantly, she looks like she wants to be perceived that way.
But the most interesting thing about Fincher’s film is the way it treats research, a topic he delved into with great interest in Zodiac, and which is conducted in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fluidly over digital and analog platforms, the film captivated by the process, never treating it like filler between action sequences. When Salander uses her laptop, she does it in the most realistic way I can recall ever having seen on screen, clicking rapidly through windows with keyboard shortcuts, using an exact phrase search in Google, skimming through a Wikipedia entry. These characters search databases, and sometimes the results send them into the stacks to dig through files and photos not yet scanned or on trips to talk to people who were there, the most analog sources of all. This film is generous with and respectful of how its oddball investigators page through records and make connections — we watch as the pieces are assembled, with fairly little exposition offered for those not closely following along.
When Blomkvist selects a string of old negatives of shots of the victim whose fate he and Salander are trying to determine, he puts them on his computer for closer examination. We’ve already seen the day in question brought to life in bright, warmly colored flashes of memory (the film spans a year, but its chilly contemporary Sweden never achieves the golden tones of these flashbacks even in the summer), but this is the first time it does so for one of the protagonists. It’s an eerie meeting of the past and the present — as he switches through the faded shots on screen they almost animate, the girl in the photo briefly brought back to life by his interest.