Over his long career, filmmaker David Fincher has been the mastermind behind many of the greatest thrillers to ever grace the silver screen. Characterized by their sleek, dark visuals and tense and unsettling atmospheres, his films explore twisted and gruesome stories in a careful and detailed manner. Sandwiched between his earlier forays in the genre—Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac—and his most recent crime works—Gone Girl and Mindhunter—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which turns a decade old this week, remains his most underappreciated movie due to its brutal nature and heavy subject matter.
Adapted from the first installment of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Swedish Millennium series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo centers on Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig between James Bond duties), a recently disgraced journalist dealing with the fallout of a libel suit that destroyed his reputation and the publication he runs with longtime lover/business partner Erika (Robin Wright). When approached by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (the late, great Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-old disappearance and presumed murder of his then-16-year-old grandniece Harriet in exchange for a healthy sum of money and, more importantly, information pertaining to the billionaire who destroyed Mikael’s career, he jumps at the chance in the hopes that it’ll be a win-win situation.
While we meet the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), within the first few minutes, it takes almost an hour for her narrative to join Mikael’s. The relentless antisocial punk hacker is recruited to aid Mikael in conducting research and gathering information for the investigation. Despite being wildly different people who exist in completely opposite worlds, Lisbeth and Mikael share a mission—uncovering a legacy of murders and bringing the killer who has spent decades undetected to justice—and their loneliness plays a role in ultimately bringing them together intimately.
Lisbeth is undeniably the film’s beating heart, largely due to Mara. She grants the heroine depth, conveying complex emotions in a subtle, vulnerable and humane way that doesn’t feel like a caricature. As opposed to being watered down to a bruised woman who needs saving, Mara’s performance is layered, as Salander appears to be guarded and icy at first glance but isn’t immune to actually feeling her emotions. Not only did she quietly convey standoffishness with a beating heart, but Mara physically transformed for the role, bleaching her eyebrows, chopping her hair off, changing her wardrobe and piercing her eyebrow, lip, nose, ears and nipple in order to better embody the character. A ward of the state, Lisbeth is threatened, abused and taken advantage of by those closest to her, namely her sadistic court-appointed guardian. Despite being an outsider shaped by trauma, Lisbeth learns how to cope and live with her struggles, never letting them overpower her and allowing her to tap into her thoughts and feelings at any given moment—and we see Mara go through all this. I wholeheartedly believe that Meryl Streep stole the Oscar from Mara at the 2012 Academy Awards.
Although the film is two-and-a-half hours long, Fincher never wastes a moment, creating a rich and fleshed-out adaptation that surprisingly never overstays its welcome. Using an unconventional five-act structure, no part of the story feels rushed. Steven Zaillian’s script allows us to get to know the core pair before the action begins, giving Fincher the room to explore every detail despite packing in so much. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s editing helps transform Dragon Tattoo, which could’ve easily ended up being dense, into something fully absorbing: Seemingly mundane and unnecessary moments (like Lisbeth riding the subway or eating at McDonalds) become fully worth our attention. Balancing these with the stark setting, they build tension while also insisting that no detail is too small.
I would be remiss to go without mentioning the spellbinding opening credits sequence set to Karen O, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” (While Reznor and Ross won the Oscar for their work on The Social Network the year of Dragon Tattoo’s release, their nearly three-hour long pulsating and hauntingly atmospheric Dragon Tattoo score is arguably their magnum opus.) A visceral Bond-style sequence, they emulate the entire film as well as reference the sequels—depicting drowning, sex, violence, technology, dragons, fire and hornets—in addition to representing Lisbeth’s nightmare and foreshadowing the conclusion with hands clawing their way out of the ground. They set the tone of the dark journey that lies ahead, and it’s clear from the moment the sequence hits the screen that we’re about to experience something special.
In 2009, around the same time Sony began to conceive the idea of an American adaptation of Larsson’s novel, a Swedish trilogy of adaptations starring Noomi Rapace came out. While these were released first and are great in their own right, it’s still difficult to imagine anyone more well-suited to take on this story than Fincher, thanks to his previously established ability to create suspense. Nevertheless, his version has often been relegated to simply being another basic American remake of a foreign hit. The Swedish and American Dragon Tattoo adaptations share many similarities, largely because they remain faithful to their detailed source material and capture its tone beautifully, but Zaillian’s retelling chooses to center the protagonists’ individual journeys that lead to their narratives eventually colliding. As opposed to immediately diving into the central plot, he makes space to develop fully realized characters. Had this not been done, we wouldn’t have understood their motivations for joining forces, especially since Mikael is a renowned investigative journalist while Lisbeth was originally hired to collect information on him. Of course, the Swedish version touches on this, but Fincher takes his time using these moments to build upon each other.
Despite being a critical success and receiving a handful of accolades—including an Oscar for editing and five total nominations—it didn’t make as much as anticipated at the box office when released on its holiday weekend. Having famously been advertised as “the feel-bad movie of Christmas,” Dragon Tattoo was the rare blockbuster targeted specifically at adults. Unlike Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo is much more brutal, explicit and violent, made clear by a graphic rape scene that could’ve easily been left out. While crafted to near-perfection, from stunning visuals that beautifully capture the dark and snowy Swedish backdrop to the aforementioned editing and score that perfectly match the tone, it’s still certainly not Fincher’s most accessible film—either in the crime-thriller genre or his filmography in general. That’s a big reason why it hasn’t left as much of a cultural impact as his other works, like Se7en and Gone Girl, which have been lauded for many qualities that also appear in Dragon Tattoo. While all three are bleak murder-mysteries with shocking twists and unhappy endings, Dragon Tattoo is not as beloved. Gone Girl has been labeled a feminist masterpiece, Se7en’s iconic ending has been turned into a meme, yet Dragon Tattoo’s creepy marketing and graphic subject matter makes it perhaps too off-putting to comfortably find its sustained champions.
Soon after Dragon Tattoo’s release, Fincher and his creative team began working on the second installment, The Girl Who Played with Fire, but due to repeated delays, the planned sequels fell through and were eventually abandoned. Seven years after Dragon Tattoo’s release, it was rebooted and the result was Fede Álvarez’s disappointing “sequel” The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which adapted the fourth novel in the series, replaced Mara with Claire Foy and only involved Fincher as a producer. Now, Dragon Tattoo exists as an artifact of a bygone era when blockbusters could push boundaries and take bigger risks, when genuinely good large-scale films were aimed at adult audiences.
Even though it was publicized as a feel-bad movie, Dragon Tattoo offers brief moments of warmth and humanity—Henrik and Harriet reuniting for the first time in 40 years, Lisbeth meeting with her previous caretaker—in a film that focuses on a cold, bleak world full of evil and corruption seeping from every corner. Even though it arrived over a decade after some of Fincher’s seminal thrillers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo continues to be an underrated work—serving as a reminder that Fincher is at the top of his game when operating a psychological thriller. In the film’s final scene, Lisbeth goes to give Mikael a leather jacket, but discovers him leaving arm in arm with Erika, leaving her heartbroken as she throws the jacket in the trash and rides away on her motorcycle. Like Lisbeth in these last moments, as we see the sadness in her eyes, the film deserved better.
Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter_.