First and foremost, I would like to point out that David Fincher is a traditional filmmaker. He uses linear plot structure and almost always employs the conflict/resolution tandem. Even in his most experimental and non-linear film, Fight Club (1999), its final scene – in which the gunshot-wounded narrator (Edward Norton) tells the confounded Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter), “I’m okay… I’m fine,” as they watch from above the city’s corporate structures crumbling – offers a sense of closure.
However, this is not to say that viewers interpret Fight Club’s final scene in the same way. Fincher either likes his audience too much to allow them any gaps which need filling story-wise, or he is too enamored with Alfred Hitchcock (that is, if you believe Rear Window (1954) has nothing to do with the mystery unfolding and everything to do with voyeurism). Fincher clearly has a modus operandi in remaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the Swedish version hit theaters in 2009), and he wants viewers to take sides on what the film and its characters represent.
The fact that Fincher again uses linear structure does not mean that we must wait until the end of the film for any resolution or to choose a side. As in Fight Club, symbolism, atmosphere, and acute injections of political and social commentary play much heavier roles in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than does the plot structure. We must look within the frame, search in all corners, and open all doors to understand Fincher’s work.
The character of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a goth-punk, cyber-hacker and investigator, is Fincher’s catalyst for subversion within the narrative plot. Mara plays Lisbeth like Sherlock Holmes on speed to Daniel Craig’s doughy and Watsonish portrayal of Mikael Blomkvist, an idealistic journalist whose reputation is on the line after reporting, without substantial evidence, a corporate figurehead of financial wrongdoing. Enter the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who’s still mourning the abrupt and unsolved disappearance of his niece some forty years prior, and Mikael and Lisbeth begin hunting for a ghost and her ghosts.
Place all of the characters on a frigid island, completely inhabited (in separate dwellings) by the fragmented Vanger family, and Fincher has created a film landscape akin to that of The Shining (1980) or, more suitably, Shutter Island (2010) – a setting only possible through the stylization of film. The landscape itself – with its intimidating fog, snow, and uninviting fortresses – repudiates the very idea of Lisbeth (a walking anachronism in this old place) and Mikael’s mission: revelation. It’s only through subterfuge, working within the crooked frame, that they will set things right. Lisbeth reveals the falsity of the beautiful edifices of the patriarchal Vanger family, its armor no longer strong enough to fight off the faster and smarter female, Lisbeth.
Lisbeth, of course, must be smarter and faster than the patriarchal hierarchy which confines her. Man has historically wielded power over his female counterpart. Fincher suggests that man has grown too accustomed to this power, which has led to rampant and brutal abuse of women as a form of maintenance. Yorick van Wageningen plays Lisbeth’s legal guardian as the reprehensible and masochistic Bjurman, who demands sexual favors and submission from Lisbeth in order for her to receive the money that she earned. She later tortures Bjurman much in the way that he tortures her earlier in the film; she shoves a large metal dildo into his anus and tattoos “I am a rapist pig” onto his chest. Her revenge holds its own against the great eye-for-an-eye violence scenes of all time (Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) come to mind). It’s a necessary catharsis of the pain we, as viewers, feel for Lisbeth – her anger incarnate, played out in a hyper-stylized exercise of torture of Bjurman.
But Fincher assures us the vengeance scene with Bjurman is only a manifestation of Lisbeth’s anger. Fincher reveals his true feminist philosophy when later in the film, Lisbeth chases down Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) – who is revealed to be a serial killer of females – to his inescapable death. The chase – woman on the heels of man’s seat of power – ends with Martin flipping his SUV and Lisbeth walking towards the suffering Martin ready to take his life. But before she gets there we see the fear in Martin’s eyes – he never saw her coming. His ignorance and hatred of the female is his ultimate undoing. Fincher uses another cinematic device here to get that point across; rather than Lisbeth ending Martin’s life, he goes up in flames in his black metal fortress, old and alone. The system Martin Vanger (man) has created collapses on itself, its hyper-bureaucratic structure too fragmented to conceal its hypocrisy and corruption. Lisbeth widens and exposes the faults created by the bureaucracy created by Vanger’s male hubris. (The file storage room Lisbeth must navigate for clues at Vanger Industries is cavernous; it looks more like a furniture liquidation warehouse).
If Fincher wanted to make the perfect film, he would have ended the film here, after Martin’s death and after the spawned romance between Lisbeth and Mikael, which could be left up in the air. But Fincher has loftier goals for his Lisbeth. This is where we see Fincher’s Hollywood appeal dip below the surface and his heavier social critique shines through. Fincher squeezes all the juice he can from the traditional linear film structure. While I found myself being puppeted up and down in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) fashion – ready to stand up and leave the theater after every plot strand’s resolution – the last scene vindicates the previous thirty minutes.
Lisbeth, finally having allowed herself to be willingly vulnerable with a man, Mikael, pulls the ultimate gender inversion. First, she again works within the system with her cyber-hacking and feminine skills, accessing and then draining all of the off-shore accounts of Erik Wennerström – the corporate figurehead on whom Mikael had been accused of falsely reporting – which ultimately further vindicates Mikael’s article. She also orders an expensive custom-made leather jacket for Mikael – similar to the one she sees him wearing in a picture as a younger man. Lisbeth’s thoughtful and calculated gifts not only reverse the traditional and vestigial format of male gift-showering on the female, they also serve as her entrance into a world of some form of domesticity she has never known, and she assumes Mikael will reciprocate her love.
However, love is a new game for Lisbeth, and she is clumsy in her approach. She doesn’t understand the subtleties of the male-female dynamic, only what she feels and what has happened between herself and Mikael in the recent past. In an extremely raw and sensual sex scene, Lisbeth uses no form of seduction; rather, she treats the situation in mathematical terms, abruptly pulling off her underwear and compelling the surprised Mikael to make love, as if it were as natural as one and one making two.
In essence, Lisbeth must start from the beginning in figuring out the new female-male dynamic (for she is the first!). Lisbeth is the hyper-educated (with no equivalent male counterpart) female who must find a way to communicate with the less industrious and slower – more clumsy – male, Mikael Blomkvist (think of the scene where she puts up with his bumbling and tortoise-like navigation of her PC). This may be exactly the turning point between dependents – the moment when she notices she has the upper hand – on which the whole film revolves.
Her naivety, however, in this game leads to her ultimate rejection. Upon arriving at Mikael’s loft, gift in hand, Lisbeth sees Mikael with Erika (Robin Wright), his co-editor with whom he had been having an affair. For the first time in the film we see Lisbeth panicking, unsure of herself. It’s a devastating moment. But just as quickly as it hits, the moment passes. Lisbeth throws the gift into the garbage and speeds off into the night on her motorcycle just before the closing credits start rolling.
Fincher uses this gift, as well as Lisbeth’s subsequent discovery of Mikael being less than emotionally honest, to pose some very important questions. How will Lisbeth move forward in a world (in which for so long she has been disenfranchised and raped) wherein she must come to terms with the fact that she may never find another man with whom she will allow herself to be vulnerable? In other words, how will Lisbeth move forward after allowing herself this ultimate rejection? (She owns all of the cards, her deviant behavior within the system compelling her to).
Will she move on to create a new and crooked matriarch – the new vengeance? Or will she outsmart the male, allow him to realize, on his own, his faults of hubris in power? I think Fincher’s point is clear: the new female, stronger and slicker than the incumbent male, will not preach her gospel like her uneven predecessor. She is ready to allow Mt. Everest to implode and crumble into billions of incongruent, selfish, and phallic ideas. Because Lisbeth knows too well the monster in man that the system has created. When it’s all down on the ground, on equal planes, each sediment will see that it needs other sediments to grow and prosper. Lisbeth will be an avenging angel soaring above us, like a magnet as once was man’s foot to the snake, sucking us up – not to appease the divine spirit – but setting things right, like a clock telling the hour – just as it should have always been.