Harsh, unyielding and spooky, David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larssen’s first of his best selling trilogy (adaptations of all three have been made in Sweden) is intricate, engrossing and decidedly chilly. Daniel Craig plays a Swedish journalist who has just been convicted of libeling a financier. Another corporate titan (Christopher Plummer) summons Craig after having his background checked by an investigative firm. The firm’s investigator is a ward of the state (Rooney Mara) who ostensibly works as an office clerk, but, in fact, is a genius of surveillance and investigatory technique. Plummer entices Craig to investigate the 50 year old disappearance of his niece, and Craig eventually enlists the loner and outcast, Mara, to assist him.
Fincher’s strongest milieu is psychological crime. Seven gave us the mastermind of Kevin Spacey as he offed his victims using the seven deadly sins as a guide. Zodiac was an intriguing take on a real life case, the Zodiac murders in Northern California during the late 1960s, early 1970s, and while it bombed at the box office, only two movies appeared on more critics’ top ten lists in 2007. Fincher can deftly keep a lot of balls up in the air with great precision yet still tells a tale you can follow. The book provided a family tree chart in the preface, and given the number of characters in the family, I found myself referring to it regularly. Screenwriter Steve Zallian has smartly excised the plot of a few people, but not many, yet I never found myself confused.
Mara is genuine as a troubled, anti-social outcast who teams up with Craig to work on the mystery, and they produce a strong and convincing bond (her nomination for best actress is merited). The close of the picture, when she realizes she cannot have perhaps one of the few people who has shown her affection, is a gut punch.
The ending, however, is muddled, tacking on a financial windfall/scam to the resolution of the mystery. Once you’ve witnessed the solving of a string of gruesome ritual killings and a missing persons case that goes back decades, a coda of fraudulent financial transfers is hardly satisfying and robs crucial minutes away from further character study of the family, some of whom get short shrift given the sweep of the story.
Another distraction is Mara’s progressively expert investigatory skills, which by the end of the film near those of a super hero (as Christopher Hitchens noted about her literary character, she “is so well accoutred with special features that she’s almost over-equipped”). The more La Femme Nikita she becomes, the less your investment in her.
Be warned. Like Fincher’s Seven, this film is both brilliant and disturbing. Gruesome murders, rape, animal mutilation, and what appears to be an unbearably cold Sweden all await. Not for the faint of heart