The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo | How to Construct Mystery

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Spoiler alert: The following content contains spoilers

I love watching thrillers, especially murder mysteries there is something about them I find very compelling. Every once in a while I watch a particular sequence of David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. The sequence where Henrik Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist to solve an unsolved riddle, it serves as the introduction of the main plot devices of the film. This sequence is like a master-class in introducing the mystery to the audience. The tension and anticipation lead to one of the most suspenseful introductions of a riddle of recent memory. So, what makes the sequence so constructive? How does David Fincher turn two people chatting in a room into a charming introduction of a gruesome murder mystery?

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In a paper titled “Towards a general psychological model of tension and suspense” by Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch, they discuss six key components of “tension experience”, today I want to examine some of them beginning with “expectation, prediction, anticipation”. In their paper, Lehne and Koelsch write, “A key component underlying tension and suspense experiences are future-directed processes of expectation, prediction, and anticipation. As events unfold in time (e.g., in real life, fictional worlds, or music), they are constantly evaluated against a background of predictions that is continuously updated during the temporal evolution of events. Emotional Significance of Anticipated Events can then generate experiences of tension or suspense.”

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Blomkvist comes to Hedestad to meet Mr. Vanger while the reason of his meeting with is still unknown to him. His expectation of the place gets a huge setback as soon as he reaches the train station. The weather condition is far from being generous. As Steven Zaillian describes in the screenplay, “Blomkvist disembarks to find Frode – who he can only assume is Frode – beyond a veil of snow, waving to him from outside a Mercedes. Unlike Blomkvist, he’s dressed for this God-awful weather in a fur-collared topcoat.” It embarks doubts in Blomkvist whose background of prediction is being disrupted by the temporal evolution of events. He wants to take the 4:30 train back to Stockholm while Frode jokes that the train tracks might get showed in. Zaillian’s usage of strong and short dialogues creates the sense of “uncertainty” in Blomkvist’s mind. As he comes out of the car to meet Mr. Vanger in front of the latter’s house a distant gunshot is heard which builds up the uncertainty even more. In just one page Zaillian has laid the foundation for suspense. But this alone is not enough to create the intensity of suspense that we feel by the end of the sequence.

It surely takes a great amount of screenwriting to set up the stage for the director but it also takes a good director to portray that vision into visuals and that’s where the brilliance of David Fincher comes in. He uses Zaillian’s extremely effective dialogues to create an “emotional investment” of the audience. In their paper, Lehne and Koelsch write, “The intensity of the suspense is proportional to our emotional investment in what is going on.” Fincher stages the scenes in a certain way to increase the emotional significance of the anticipated events.

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Let’s take the scene in Vanger’s study where Blomkvist and the old man indulge in conversation. In this scene, Vengar talks about the glorious history of his ancestors and how they built modern Sweden. Before turning serious and asking Blomkvist for his help. Fincher uses his camera movements and shot sizes to control the emotional flow of the scene. As Vanger calls out for help he cuts to a close-up. Blomkvist is asked by Mr. Vanger to investigate his family to solve an age old mystery.

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The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock once said that the mystery that we see on films comes from how the scenes are staged in retrospect to what the character knows. Like Hitchcock, David Fincher also cares about information. In his cinematic world drama happens when a character learns a new piece of information and how does it fit with everything the already know. And how does the character reacts to discovering a little more of the truth? Some directors try to avoid expositions but not Fincher, it is a part of his method.

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The words “investigation” and “mystery” from the previous scene creates a whole new ground of instability which expands the material distance between the initiating event creating the tension and the moment in which tension resolves influences the tension experience. Vanger starts to introduce his family to Blomkvist through a family photo album before getting stuck with a photo of a young girl, Harriet, the granddaughter of his brother Richard. He then went on to say that someone in the family has murdered her.

As Vanger uttered the word “murder”, the circle of words starts to make sense, “investigation of a murder mystery”. But this only amplifies the suspense that’s waiting for the audience at the end of the sequence.

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As Vanger recalls the incidents of the day when Harriet disappeared, it insists another key element of suspense; “lack of control”. According to Lehne and Koelsch this element states, “An inability to influence the course of events, often contributes to experiences of tension. This lack of control is brought about by a temporal distance between the initiating event triggering the tension experience and the event that resolves the tension.” Vanger wasn’t aware of Harriet’s disappearance until he didn’t see her at the dinner table. Fincher showed that by a single take of an empty chair. He called the police and searched the island thoroughly but neither Harriet was found, nor her body.

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A girl is missing for 40 years that but does it necessarily mean that she is murdered? She could be dead, but what makes Vanger think that her granddaughter has been killed by someone in the family?

In their paper, Lehne and Koelsch said, “Temporal distance between the initiating event creating the tension and the moment in which tension resolves influences the tension experience. It has been proposed that delaying the resolution of the tension intensifies the tension experience.”

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The last part of the sequence is where the full intensity of the suspense comes alive. Fincher has stretched out the suspense as long as possible until finally the suspense successfully creates the mystery in front of Blomkvist and the audiences. Vanger reveals a wall with nine framed dried flowers those are Harriet’s birthday gift to Vanger. Similarly, on the other wall there are forty of them which are from Harriet’s killer.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Steven Zaillian

Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright

Special thanks to – Lessons from the Screenplay for introducing me to the paper, “Towards a general psychological model of tension and suspense”