Home > Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011; Directed by David Fincher)

The initial impression one gets from the Hollywood adaptation of the first book of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s massive-selling Millennium trilogy, and ultimately the most enduring impression, is that Scandinavia and David Fincher were absolutely made for each other. The meticulous suspense thriller stylist and grim auteur of SevenZodiac, and The Social Network is fully at home in the chilly subarctic setting of Larsson’s native land, whose landscapes and people alike come across here as physically, emotionally, and psychologically remote and unforgiving. Fincher and his cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth alternate between whitescale snowscapes in rural Sweden, grey-blue sunless daytime scenes, and sparkling black nocturnal tableaux of Stockholm that taken together feed into a sense of profound existential alienation that the dark-hued and sometimes brutal subject matter makes almost unnecessarily manifest. A brief detour to London feels like a sudden ray of blazing sunlight; you know your movie is deeply dark when the atmosphere of England lightens the mood.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does have a story, not just a mood. But it’s frankly an overwrought mess of burdening exposition that even Fincher and his capable screenwriter Steven Zaillian cannot turn into the fleet-but-dense, crisply edited thriller of information that the director has specialized at crafting beautifully in the past. Still, we must attempt a synopsis nonetheless. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a star investigative reporter for a Swedish magazine published by his lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright). Reporter and magazine alike have been publically humiliated and nearly bankrupted by a libel suit brought by the billionaire CEO whose corrupt practices they attempted but failed to fully expose.

In need of money and vulnerable to anyone offering him promises of professional redemption, Blomkvist half-reluctantly treks to an icy town in the Swedish north to meet with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired and regretful member of a sprawling, once-flush clan of corporate industrialists. Operating under the cover of Henrik’s putative memoirist, Blomkvist is tasked to investigate the decades-old disappearance of Henrik’s beloved sister Harriet, whom the old man suspects one of his distrusted family members murdered on the compound-like island where most of the surviving (but estranged) Vangers still dwell. Henrik promises Blomkvist not only payment in return, but also incriminating evidence against the fat cat target who defeated him (and who once worked for the Vangers).

As Blomkvist moves into a lakeside cottage to familiarize himself with the Vangers and the arcana around Harriet’s disappearance, the brilliant but damaged agent hired by the family attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist before they called him in struggles through daily suffering in Stockholm. A ward of the state, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a spiky goth computer hacker with a photographic memory, bisexual leanings, and a chronic shortage of funds. She is exploited and assaulted sexually by her smug government minder (Yorick van Wageningen) in exchange for the money to survive before viciously turning the tables on him with one-upping cruelty (about which more in a bit). She also has her gear bag snatched on the subway and takes it back in a slick, bravura scene of struggle on an escalator that, cool as it is, has little or nothing to do with anything else that happens.

As the mysteries in the past of the Vanger family become increasingly labyrinthine and sinister, Blomkvist decides he needs a research assistant, at which point Frode suggests Lisbeth. Blomkvist is only briefly, wrily stung by her violation of his privacy, and they become partners in the Vanger investigation, at first awkwardly (Mara’s impatient glance at Craig’s daddish slowness on his laptop is a recognizable nerd moment) before, ahem, warming up a bit (bow-chicka-wow, etc.).

There’s way more density and detail to the plot than I’ve seen fit to mention, and way more than there should be or than holds together, honestly. The sideline serial killer mystery is resolved on a piece of evidence of extreme tenuousness, although that resolution is entertainingly conveyed in an exquisite, tense intercutting sequence involving Blomkvist visiting the house of Henrik’s indulgent brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) uninvited and then sinisterly invited, Lisbeth researching in the Vanger company archives, and a black-comic deployment of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. The film drags on with unwieldy inevitability after that, becoming steadily less interesting until an ending that feels oddly truncated considering how the narrative welcome has been so thoroughly overstayed.

It’s tempting to take a H.L. Mencken tack towards such pulpy and lurid material and bemoan the slobbering masses who have so gladly consumed it with ravenous ignorance. It’s likewise tempting to echo Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir in questioning the utility of expending the abilities of a filmmaker of Fincher’s enormous technical and intellectual heft (which are often on full display here) on such overplotted sensationalist froth. But even the pulpiest of pulp bestsellers nurture a kernel of some compelling truth deep in their cores that attracts the casual public transit/airport readers like moths to a guttering lantern. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo slaps together serial killer procedurals with techno-conspiracy thrillers while festooning its convoluted (and pretty much preposterous) story with persistent elements of misogynist sexual violence, corrupt corporate exploitation, and incipient lingering fascism until these ostensibly separate evils seem like a single, insubstantial smoke-monster of lurking menace.

I’m telling you, trepanning is a miracle cure for migraines. Let me show you.

It’s quite possible that had Larsson lived (he apparently expired from a heart attack after climbing the stairs to his flat when the lift was down, an end ignonimious in its mundanity), he would have worked with an editor to iron out the idiosyncracies, odd tangents (he describes Blomkvist’s preparation and consumption of sandwiches in excruciating detail, for instance), and other evident issues in the trilogy manuscript before publishing it. His death fixed the work in its rougher form as a nakedly obvious wish-fulfilment narrative, wherein a rumpled but principled investigative reporter (so clearly Larsson himself, a left-wing activist figure who looked long and hard into extreme right politics in Sweden) overcomes an array of nasty enemies with the help of a prickly but sexualized feminist avenging angel whom, of course, he is allowed to bed. Despite some narrative departures and fixing the proceedings in an accented Euro-English rather than the native Swedish of the domestic film adaptations of the last decade, Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is likely the more faithful and the more serious(!) take on the tone of the material. This is especially true in terms of the central performances: Craig’s droll, bemused, distinctly middle-aged protagonist and Mara’s Lisbeth, a bangs-and-piercings anti-social human cactus whose sharp edges transition into a soft, vulnerable underbelly and back again with astonishing swiftness.

Stieg Larsson is a mysterious figure whose biography and history with his world-famous posthumous novels are both distinctly unconvincing; his Wikipedia entry is as patchily written and confusingly implausible as those novels themselves (at least until it is edited or corrected, it currently states that he was born in the “northern Indien city of Miami” and spent part of 1977 schooling female guerrillas in Eritrea in the use of mortars). As concerns the inspiration for his inadvertent opus, Larsson told a deeply troubling story about witnessing a gang rape while a teen and doing nothing to help the victim, an anecdote that almost became more disturbing when word came that it probably wasn’t true.

Whether Larsson himself had this galvanizing, guilt-ridden experience or merely appropriated it from someone else, this rape story is directly transferred into his narrative, and thus into Fincher’s film, in three scenes of highly unsettling sexual exploitation. Beginning with ickily forced fellatio in her state ward Nils’ office, Lisbeth is later overpowered, handcuffed, and raped in a powerful, uncompromising, and highly representationally questionable sequence. If there is a “right” way to aesthetically represent the deep trauma of sexual assault, then the good-faith attempts to locate it have been outnumbered by misguided representations that either present the act as lurid button-pushing sensationalism or as a marker of a text’s “seriousness” that otherwise re-entrenches the monstrously unequal gender politics rather than interrogating or subverting them. It often seems that simply leaving rape out of texts entirely seems the most conscientious artistic choice, if self-censorship can ever be considered conscientious.

Larsson couched his lurid invocation of this deepest violation of patriarchal misogyny (his working title was the extremely direct Men Who Hate Women) in terms of feminist inversion, with a violent revenge fantasy in which Lisbeth seized the cruel, inhuman power of corporeal violation visited upon her to gain dominion over her rapist. Fincher represents both her violation and her up-the-ante riposte with a certain faithfulness and a smart focus on the dimension of power; Nils, such a hateable figure of abuse of position and privilege in his early scenes, is downright pitiable in their final meeting. Additionally, it’s hard to say that Lisbeth, so clearly sexualized in her consensual relations with Blomkvist, is also objectified in Nils’ assaults, which are suffused with visual and aural ugliness (Mara’s vocalizations of animalistic anguish in the handcuffed rape scene imprint themselves on your consciousness most indelibly).

But however appropriately or inappropriately these violations of sexual compliance are represented onscreen (and the oily obsidian CGI animation abstractly visualizing Lisbeth’s traumas accompanied by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” over the opening credits is a richer artistic expression of them, it would seem to me), their very presence in a pulp crime genre potboiler must be seriously interrogated and, I fear, found ultimately wanting. The problem with these scenes cuts to the heart of the problem with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: despite strong performances and masterful technical and aesthetic craftsmanship, this is problematically trashy paperback bestseller crud whose overwhelming popularity is not all-legitimizing in artistic terms. Fincher and his team apply themselves admirably to make the most of such crud, but as a viewer, you’re ultimately left wondering if their effort was worth admiring after all.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
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  1. October 4, 2014 at 9:30 pm
  2. June 26, 2015 at 10:05 am

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