Film Review – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Considering the pedigree of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—a fiercely successful novel and well-regarded Swedish film already exist—director David Fincher would have had to try really hard to mess this movie up. Since he is not a moron, this movie is well made, interesting, and slick; beautiful people in a dark and brutal world ponder a complicated mystery and exciting things happen. I don’t really think this movie was necessary, what with there being a pretty good film made of this book already, but I can understand why it was made: Hollywood would have been leaving money on the table by not making an English language remake.
Disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a libel case against industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, which has wiped out both his bank account and his reputation. He is approached by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery of what happened to Vanger’s niece Harriet: almost 40 years ago she disappeared into thin air, and Vanger believes someone in the family might be responsible. Since he now has a lot of free time, Blomkvist accepts the assignment, and during his investigations, he discovers a series of earlier killings that may or may not relate to Harriet’s disappearance. He gets stuck and the brilliant and antisocial investigator Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is brought in to assist him. There is a lot going on here. Had this been a stand-alone movie, I would have accused it of being bloated, but some of the things that happen, while not being particularly important to the outcome of this movie, do have some bearing on the plot of the second installment. But it does make this movie a little rambling at times and not as tight as it could have been.
For the most part, this is a pretty well made film. The story is interesting and at no point was I bored or distracted during any of its 158 minutes. (And I am someone who firmly believes that very few movies need to be longer than an hour and a half.) All of the actors are good, although some of them have Swedish accents, some of them have bad Swedish accents, and others, like Daniel Craig, make no effort at all. It’s not particularly bothersome, and if I can accept this film’s premise that almost everyone in Sweden is exceptionally good looking and extremely well dressed, then I can accept the accents. It’s a movie. But the impeccable grooming and luminous faces of the cast help further the cold, almost antiseptic, tone of this film. Dark things happen here, but we are kept at arm’s length by the slick, perfect presentation. (During one of the sex scenes, even Lisbeth Salander’s pubic hair is perfectly fluffed.) This is a valid tactic, as bringing the audience in closer might make them feel complicit in some of the very nasty things that happen in this film. And making the audience feel creepy is not very good for business.
There are some things about this movie that I find deeply problematic. This story truly belongs to Lisbeth Salander, and by extension, Rooney Mara. Who is amazing, by the way. Salander is a character of mythic proportions, and Mara manages to capture every nuance of this feral, heartbreaking, larger-than-life character. Unfortunately, for every time Salander behaves in a manner true to her character—acting instinctively and guided by a very ambiguous moral compass—she is either objectified by the film or forced to do something totally out of character to reinforce her status as a mere woman.
Early in the movie, Salander suffers a horrific rape, to which the audience is witness, in all of its gory details. (There is a second rape in this movie that is more spoilerish to discuss, so I won’t. But I wish I could.) While the general brutality of the event and the cool tone of the film helps keep the scene from being titillating, the set up of the shots is more ambiguous. No shot in this movie is ugly or unflattering to anyone really, except for the rapist. At no point when Rooney Mara (or possibly a body double) is naked is she shot unflatteringly. Quite frankly, I don’t want to notice what a nice butt she has right before she gets raped. Fincher does show us the horrible physical effects of the rape in the obligatory post-rape shower scene, but like everything else in the film, its impact is muted by the tone of the movie.
And I am not even sure what the point of showing a rape in such graphic detail is. To get across how horrible it is? According to the latest numbers I’ve seen, one in three American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked. I’m thinking a lot of people already know rape is horrific. Is it to set up the dark tone of the movie? Don’t really need that much detail to do so. I thought a lot about Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Frenzy while watching this scene. In Frenzy, there are two rape/murders that are dealt with in detail, one that is shown and the other taking place behind a closed door. The latter has always been a more effective scene to me because my dread of what could be happening is always completely devastating, even though I’ve seen the movie more than once. I thought for a moment Fincher was going to go that way, but he doesn’t. I’m kind of over using graphic depictions of violence against women (or anyone really) for entertainment purposes, but maybe I’m the only one.
And then there is all the female nudity. Now I understand the issues with full frontal male nudity and not wanting to push the MPAA when the film is already so graphic, but all Craig shows is a little butt crack at the top of his man panties. Yes, he is kind of beefcakey in this movie, but he is an object that maintains boundaries, whereas Mara bares it all. Seriously, either everybody should get naked or no one does. We view Lisbeth Salander being treated as a thing by her rapist in one scene, and then the film objectifies both character and actor by presenting her as another type of thing for us to admire during the sex scenes. And yes, this is standard procedure in a Hollywood movie. So standard that I might not have brought it up had it not been one of many things this film does to make sure that Lisbeth Salander’s kick-assedness is limited.
The film is filled with instances where Salander must be reigned in. In another important scene, she requests Blomkvist’s permission to commit an act which is a no brainer, and in our final moment with her, she is reduced to a jealous and insecure little girl. For every brilliant, morally wrong, revenge-taking, rule-breaking, gender-busting, heartbreaking, line-crossing, crime-committing, bad-decision-making, overcoming the bullshit that life hands out moment, there is another moment that drags her down to secondary status. I don’t want to hear about what was in the source material; Fincher dropped or changed plenty of other things to suit his vision of this story. Instead of making something truly transgressive, he’s made a beautiful-looking film about a dark subject that is disappointingly conventional. And I’m gonna grade him down for it. You should not have a character with as much potential as Lisbeth Salander and squander her like that.
Final Grade: B