Perihelion: On Adaptation, Obsession, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

illustration by Ben Turner

Really, this essay is about commentary tracks.

I’d been thinking about comfort movies because I was recently bedridden with a bad cold and watching the same movie over and over. I suppose I’ve been thinking about why so many of these sorts of movies, for me at least, tend to be ones meant to make the viewer feel bad. Maybe not “why”, maybe not “meant.” Pathologizing cinematic taste can quickly turn into phrenology and, like so many artforms, one encounters works of art at various times in one’s life to vastly different effects. 

I spent many solitary afternoons walking home from school while my parents were working, grabbing a box of grocery store doughnuts from our pantry, sitting on the couch, and pulling up a list of DVR’d titles I wasn’t allowed to watch, titles I hoped would be buried beneath the long column of my parents’ recorded TV shows. There must have been a solid year, or close to it, where all I wanted to watch was David Slade’s Hard Candy, starring Elliot Page and Patrick Wilson. By that point, I had developed an adolescent parasocial attachment to both actors, and what fascinated me anew every time I watched Hard Candy was the charismatic tension between them, the gulf in the actors’ respective ages and career experience (Hard Candy directly follows Wilson’s turn as the doe-eyed Raoul in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera from the year before, another film I watched obsessively, before the following year’s controversially ribald Little Children directed by Todd Field. Meanwhile, Page’s star-making turn in Juno came after a string of other Canadian indies, including Alison Murray’s Mouth to Mouth), how utterly, perversely enjoyable their shared enthusiasm for the narrative’s twists and turns seemed, which only made the film’s violent climax harder to watch. 

What united Hard Candy and other supposedly age-inappropriate films was the fact that they rotated frequently on cable and so I would get to know their story beats asynchronously, catching the same moment in the middle of a movie over and over, or just missing the start, or arriving just before the end. This can be a frustrating but comprehensive way of digesting a movie. Separating Hard Candy was the fact that, eventually, my parents let me buy the DVD because I wanted to listen to the commentary track. Any DVD of any movie we owned that I was remotely interested in, if there was a commentary track, I’d listen to it. An increasingly rare staple of a post-theatrical release, one hears in detail how the production came together, or one hears gossip. The ideal—say, Catherine Hardwick’s Twilight or Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice—contains both. 

The first commentary track I remember listening to accompanied Stephen Sommers’ monster romp Van Helsing, featuring Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley, and Will Kemp. The second was David Fincher’s Fight Club. Fincher has lived inside my ear for most of my life. Thanks to a superfan known as the Fincher Analyst, who maintains a thorough database of pretty much anything and everything related to Fincher and his work, I have the audio from the director’s available commentary tracks, plus a few of his interviews, downloaded onto my iPod. I’ve listened to the lot of them dozens of times. 

At first, this started from a place of the kind of childhood wonder about filmmaking that inspires dreams of directing. I watched Panic Room and The Game frequently as a kid, inspired by their crisp, exacting exteriors. I grew up on DVD behind-the-scenes documentaries. I had a sense for the kinds of movies I wanted to make. I listened to a bunch of directors expound upon their craft back then (to varying degrees of tolerable pretentiousness), but Fincher always proved the more engaging interlocutor. His commentary is droll, earnest, witty, and grammatically consistent, so much so that I’ve subconsciously adopted a few of his most frequently-used terms: “ostensibly”, “self-effacing”, “notion”, “mining” an idea or performance, the perennial shitting-on of Regency Enterprise’s production logo. The majority of my social media handles are some permutation of “Orinoco Flow,” the Enya song featured during a scene late in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo where Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist is about to be eviscerated by Stellan Skarsgård’s Martin Vanger, and the impetus for a mythic Fincher anecdote about how the song was originally Craig’s idea. 

What one learns from a Fincher commentary track, beyond choice bits of monologuing (an example: throughout Zodiac, he notes the film’s historical inaccuracies before stage-whispering “it’s a movie”), is that Fincher maintains an emotional superposition with his work. As he’s fond of saying, “If the movie is great, I’m gonna get too much credit and if it sucks, I’m gonna get too much blame.” This results in his giving adoring descriptions of his actors, falling in love with locations and scripts, while also couching the veracity of certain directorial decisions, batting away implications of any kind of legacy. Another Fincher adage: do your best, try to live it down.

Of the many cliches that plague the director, an obsessive, almost compulsory control is both the most famous and the most superficial. If nothing else, a listener gleans the vast degree to which Fincher cares, or at least projects care, about his work, his crew, and the logic behind his creative choices. The commentaries grant his films an origin story beyond the press tour, and help to more clearly situate their importance in his career. I owe so much of my admiration for Fincher, and filmmaking as a whole, to his commentaries. It’s the reason I’ve continued to pay such close attention to his increasingly uneven work. And it’s the reason why I think The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo might be David Fincher’s best movie. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo succeeds, in part, because it’s a vigilante investigative thriller, a procedural where the detectives are a disgraced journalist and a goth hacker, not cops. It is, per author Brandon Taylor’s parlance, a paper movie. It’s a murder mystery whose ultimate reveal, after nearly three hours, comes as an anticlimax. It is, to put it superficially though not inaccurately, a movie about men and women. As with so much of Fincher’s work thematically (Graysmith’s deflated triumph of recognition in Zodiac, the very heart and soul of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zuckerberg refreshing Erica Albright’s Facebook page at the end of The Social Network, the biased historical emphasis of Mank), it offers a tantalizing, yet fully realized glimpse at what could have been. 

At the time of its announcement and subsequent release, Dragon Tattoo was regarded as an expensive recapitulation. Adam Nayman writes in his book David Fincher: Mind Games, “By the 2010s, Fincher was in the rare position to pick and choose projects and exercise control over studio capital; his eager and willing selection of a mechanically tacky bestseller could be taken as a lack of care or an abundance of cynicism – or a hint that, for all his self-possession, Fincher was a helpless practitioner-slash-victim of the same pathological recidivism featured in his serial-killer films.” Nayman tidily sums up what has remained the director’s industry descriptor since at least Panic Room: the control freak, the director of serial killer movies. More than most filmmakers, dismissive critique of Fincher tends to be cumulative, gaining momentum with each new project. 

In this case, to follow the critical and commercial success of The Social Network, (itself following what many consider Fincher’s opus, Zodiac) with an American adaptation of a popular Swedish thriller that had already spawned a famous Swedish film trilogy appeared odd, if not ill-advised. Amidst a roster of non-Swedish actors doing their best Swedish accents, Daniel Craig plays a Swedish journalist who, like the cast of HBO’s Chernobyl, speaks with his English accent firmly intact. The film, split into an unconventional five-act structure, drops a major plot thread at the beginning before picking it up again just before the end. Its gender dynamics, like Gone Girl’s, walk a line between juvenile essentialism and unremitting cynicism. The infamous rape scene is perhaps the most grotesque thing Fincher has ever filmed, a typically unflinching, drawn-out sequence that can’t escape its voyeuristic sadism. Depending on one’s vantage, you can watch Dragon Tattoo and see nothing but missteps or retreads. 

And yet. Even more so than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Zodiac, two films where Fincher operates in an uncommonly warm and personal register respectively, there is a consequential, contemplative, even vulnerable quality to his interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s source material. Eliding the novel’s focus on Scandinavian fascism, antisemitism, and institutional corruption, Fincher takes the original Swedish title Men Who Hate Women as a lodestar and fashions his rendition into a generational lament, a layered, melancholic examination of two colleagues, first friends then lovers, at vastly different points in their lives who try to coax one another from societal retreat. Graham Greene split his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments” and that same distinction, “movies” and “films”, applies to Fincher. In this case, Dragon Tattoo is both. Featuring, and about the dissection of, an overwhelming variety of details—expositional, aesthetic (the many incidental photographs shown throughout the film necessitated their own separate production department), sonic, motivational—Dragon Tattoo represents an unexpected, pulpy, intimate fusing of art and artist at grand scale. 

Mikael Blomkvist starts the movie publicly humiliated and broke, accused of libel after his splashy expose of a famous Swedish billionaire named Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) is revealed to be premised on false sources. That Blomkvist was set up with fake leads by agents of Wennerström is his burden to prove and the impetus for his accepting the invitation of Swedish industrial titan Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a family disappearance. In the 60s, Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal), Henrik’s 16 year-old grandniece, went missing. Henrik believes someone in the family murdered her. In exchange for Blomkvist’s investigative skills, which necessitates his isolation in the frigid northern countryside, Henrik promises the kind of dirt on Wennerström that could sink the billionaire’s career. Meanwhile, in Stockholm, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a skilled, asocial hacker, who’s survived institutional and familial abuse and now works at a private security company, has just lost her guardian to a debilitating stroke. Her guardian’s state-appointed replacement, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), takes control of Salander’s finances, only disbursing checks in exchange for increasingly brutal sexual favors. Though Vanger’s associates hired the security company Salander works for to conduct a background check on Blomkvist before hiring him, and though it was Salander herself who put together the report, how either character will have any bearing on the other isn’t obvious until almost halfway through the film. 

As the protagonist of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Salander has been given a backstory that is constantly extended and reshaped. Originally, Fincher and Sony Pictures planned to film the rest of the series—The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—back-to-back. Having mined the internet’s potential as a tool of unhealthy fixation in The Social Network, Fincher alters the perspective, focusing, in Dragon Tattoo, on data and surveillance as a means of constricting movement and choice. But the film’s lackluster box-office performance tanked the series’ future. A cash-grab reboot based on a continuation of the Salander books written after Larsson’s death, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, was released in 2018, seven years later, with Claire Foy as the title character. Even as the entry point for a franchise that never concluded, Dragon Tattoo treats its narrative as a decisive stand-alone. But the breadcrumbs are still there, the most pointed allusions to the subsequent installments illustrated during the oil-slick opening title sequence: immolation, flying insects, flashes of Salander’s psychotic father, the many hands grasping at Salander’s life and past. 

Blomkvist’s investigation into a decades-old mystery, which he doubtfully undertakes, turns up skeletons where the journalist expected only moths. Among them, the present-day rot of Sweden’s Nazi history, exaggerated and exemplified by Martin Vanger (Skarsgård), Henrik’s grandson, a secret serial killer of Jewish and immigrant women after his Nazi father. Blomkvist sifts through reams of documents, related to the Vanger company and family, methodically collected by Henrik over the course of his long life: banker’s boxes of files, photographs, newspaper clippings, maps, memos, itineraries, all of it cramming the small cottage Blomkvist takes on the Vanger estate. In turn, Blomkvist sets about applying his own methodology to the data, constructing a family tree of suspects with color-coded sticky notes, copious print-outs, and a riptide (another favored Fincher term) of narrative momentum. 

It’s in the investigator’s frenzied search, in the mastermind’s fastidious planning, both of which easily dip into obsession—Robert Graysmith’s hunt for the Zodiac killer in Zodiac, Detectives Somerset and Mills’s tracking of John Doe in Se7en anticipated by that film’s opening title sequence showcasing Doe’s patient construction of his diaries, Amy Dunne faking her own death in Gone Girl—that Fincher finds a kind of authorial grace. Ostensibly, such sequences are montages and one can call upon Fincher’s many commercials and music videos as a pejorative comparison. But Dragon Tattoo embeds within it all of Fincher’s aesthetic hallmarks, not just the crystalline photography or grimy production design, but his uncanny eye for cutting on the very apex of an actor’s physical movement, a music cue, a dawning realization. Wading through so much history, familial and professional, pits Blomkvist against two inner selves: the crusading journalist eager to redeem himself, and the steadfast, loyal friend to women who nonetheless mishandles his many personal relationships and feels a duty to catch a misogynist murderer. 

By the time Salander exacts revenge on Bjurman, lashing his naked body to the floor of his bedroom, kicking a chrome dildo up his ass, and tattooing the words “I am a rapist pig” in spidery, jagged letters on his chest, Blomkvist has hit a wall in his investigation. There’s too much material to parse, too many interviews in too many disparate locations to conduct. Henrik’s legal counsel Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) suggests an “excellent” assistant, the same person who conducted what Blomkvist discovers to be a distressingly, illegally thorough background check. In short order, Blomkvist comes back to Stockholm, barges into Salander’s life, and makes her an offer he hopes she’ll accept: to help him catch a killer of women. 

Dragon Tattoo represents Fincher’s most exhaustive world-building effort since Alien 3, an alternate Sweden constructed from doctored newspaper articles, staged vintage photography, monologue, and a few wordless flashbacks. His Sweden is a cold country hiding a curdled foundation, braided together by ever-present trains, separated by hermetic yet stunning architecture, and saturated with silence. It’s through this uninviting world that Blomkvist and Salander must navigate, at first alone—divided by geography, economic background, gender, and divergent ethics of violence—and, in the film’s latter half, together. 

Two-handers proliferate Fincher’s work. Really, it might be more accurate to note that almost all his projects turn into two-handers at some point. Early in his career, Fincher’s focus was drawn to relationships between men, who longed to trade their awkward, often bestial performances of masculinity for something more honest, even tender, though almost always at the expense of sharing that tenderness safely with anyone else. Flashes of the femme fatale appear in The Game and Gone Girl, while Benjamin Button’s Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett) and Panic Room’s Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) illustrate shades of a proud, scrappy maternalism. These are simplifications. For example, Button’s wondrous, mournful depiction of a lifelong romance riddled with regret and missed opportunities affords Daisy a complexity of character far beyond her relationship to Benjamin or her motherhood. But one can’t help notice certain essential elements running through Fincher’s roles. 

Foremost among them is a type of ageless petulance, an adolescent prickliness and defiance, most often exhibited by Fincher’s men, that all of his adult characters share at one time or another. In this way, Lisbeth Salander, a gifted technician but also an emotionally volatile, impulsive young woman (the “girl” present in all the novels’ titles is a descriptor as much as a mission statement) shares elements of Fight Club’s Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), Panic Room’s Sarah Altman (Kristen Stewart), and The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), whose particular characterization turns on a desperate enacting of masculinity that, by contrast, Salander skillfully dons and doffs at will. 

There’s an age gap between Salander and Blomkvist, to say nothing of their differences in self-presentation, yet each character possesses blindspots and insights the other lacks. Where Blomkvist is naive and trusting, Salander is pessimistic and watchful. Where Salander is socially inept, Blomkvist is easily charming. These behavioral nuances, handled deftly by Craig and Mara, play out in furtive glances, close framing, and the piling up of the movie’s runtime. 

As Fincher notes in his commentary, Dragon Tattoo begs a question the audience might grow impatient with: after so much of the film devoted to its lead characters’ isolation, how can their long-awaited union have the requisite impact? It’s precisely because their respective storylines have been so firmly established that the relative swiftness with which Blomkvist and Salander pair up works. As opposites, their mismatch is obvious and, in its early stages, comical. But it becomes clear, even before they meet, that Blomkvist and Salander need each other, if not for the rest of their lives, then for this moment in them. It’s tempting to draw a line between Harriet Vanger and Lisbeth, two girls, both victims of familial sexual and physical abuse, robbed of their childhoods. And yet one gets the sense that Salander, an online lurker who pries into the lives of others, isn’t interested in avenging herself through the capture of Harriet’s killer so much as she is in being understood for who she is now. Blomkvist, melding together several roles (father, lover, partner, confidant) unconditionally offers Salander something no one but her first guardian has given her: his trust. 

It’s in this grace note that Dragon Tattoo’s focus shifts from a thriller about one journalist’s single-minded pursuit of redemption and a social outcast’s hunger for vengeance into a character portrait where the pair help each other fight for survival. Martin Vanger, until now played winningly and glancingly by Skarsgård as a rich layabout, reveals himself to Blomkvist as a killer just as Salander, miles away at a Vanger archive, discovers the same fact. (Henrik, incapacitated due to a stroke, knows nothing, mistakenly believing what Blomkvist did at the outset: that Harriet will never be found.) But it’s not the sexual relationship between Blomkvist and Salander that brings them together, nor is it Salander’s rescue of Blomkvist from Martin. It’s in the moment just before Salander chases after Martin. “May I kill him?” she asks Blomkvist, who gasps on the floor of Martin’s basement torture chamber. As Fincher elaborates, Salander isn’t asking for permission. She’s asking, after all that Blomkvist has seen and doubted about the depraved depths of men, if he finally sees what must be done. Blomkvist nods. Salander runs. 

*

The movie ends here. 

For all intents and purposes, “this many hours later” as Fincher says in his commentary, the closing up of the Wennerström storyline in Dragon Tattoo serves merely to complete Blomkvist’s original arc. Salander and Blomkvist discover that Harriet (played, as an adult, by Joely Richardson) escaped Martin’s clutches the day she disappeared, Gone Girling herself and assuming her cousin’s identity in London. Henrik and Harriet tearfully reunite, the latter’s splintered life in the wake of his grandniece’s disappearance finally granted a cause for hope. Meanwhile, the supposedly earth-shattering evidence Henrik promised Blomkvist against Wennerström proves less than helpful and Salander sets about rectifying what Henrik failed to provide. 

A final key moment of connection between journalist and hacker comes at a cafe when Salander requests $50,000 from Blomkvist for an unspecified business venture, really an elaborate scheme by which Salander plans to steal Wennerström’s money and expose him to the nefarious entities to whom the billionaire owes money. Blomkvist protests, saying he’s still broke following the trial, but Salander knows he has the money, split between two accounts. Where before she might have touted this private information, Salander instead apologizes for knowing it at all. In being around Blomkvist, Salander hasn’t learned to be civilized—she was never uncivilized to begin with—but she has acquired a reverence for the boundaries of the few people she cares about, and herself. Fincher describes it as Blomkvist showing faith in Salander’s ability to trust again. After a moment’s consideration, Craig staring off into the distance, as if chiding his internal doubt, he holds up a cup of coffee, shrugs, says, “Okay,” and takes a sip. Mara’s reaction is stunning and simple, her expression shocked, disbelieving. She repeats Craig’s nonchalant “Okay”, the possibility of a smile on her lips. 

Firmly out of danger, coming in from the cold and returning to society, Salander and Blomkvist endeavor to maintain a relationship that can’t conform to the shapes of their past lives. Blomkvist, reconnecting with his daughter Pernilla (Josefin Asplund), maintains an open affair with his married business partner Erika Berger (Robin Wright). Meanwhile, Salander, momentarily free from Bjurman’s grasp, cares for her beloved first guardian and fantasizes about a future with Blomkvist whose contours the audience is never fully privy to. That it might be romantic in nature is clear and also reductive, as the relationship between both characters is never fully one thing for very long. The gutting truth is, though they reunite in later installments, that relationship, and the franchise’s future, isn’t ever fully mended. 

Amidst Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s whirlwind editing, accompanied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s spare, melodically percussive soundtrack, and Jeff Cronenweth’s almost pointillist digital photography, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo appears, from its bare nuts and bolts, an unsurprising Fincher thriller, exactingly engineered and coolly delivered. That exterior softens with each passing hour, with each repeated viewing. Yes, Blomkvist and Salander uncover all manner of horrific secrets in their investigation. For his part, Fincher marshals the same keen interest in the minutiae of process and expertise seen in Mindhunter and most recently in The Killer

And yet, if a director can’t help but appear in their work, whether explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or not, there is what would seem to be a paradoxically hopeful aspect of Fincher in Dragon Tattoo. Its ending delivers on the “feel-bad” promise so memorably advertised in the film’s teaser trailer, but on a less superficially lurid level. What Blomkvist and Salander ultimately uncover in each other is a means of believing in other people again. Whether such grace is squandered or protected is beside the point. The possibility of its existence, Fincher seems to suggest, seems to allow himself to celebrate, is its own miracle.