Take One TGWTDT: The Mysterious Appeal of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I was ambivalent when I heard that David Fincher signed on to helm the American adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005).  Fincher has always been a talent who has known his way around a serial killer thriller.  He successfully launched his career with the grim and gritty Se7en (1995), the tale of a killer whose acts serve as symbols of justice taken out upon those guilty of committing the seven deadly sins.  Fincher veered away – slightly – to direct the dark thrillers The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Panic Room (2002), nihilistically refining his precise, obsidian-hued technique and auteuresque concerns.  When he returned to the genre in 2007 with Zodiac, many of those expecting a companion piece to Se7en were disappointed.  Here was a film that gave us a rash of killings in its first twenty minutes, two hours of investigation, and absolutely no resolution.  Zodiac doesn’t have the same narrative concerns as Se7en.  Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt are not interested in the killer and the killings; they are interested, first and foremost, in obsession – the lynchpin of any police investigation.  In Zodiac and Se7en, Fincher gave us a trajectory and a metamorphosis.  He was not as interested in going back to the generic well as much as he was interested in building a new one.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is, as I feared, a regressive epilogue to that trajectory.  It’s pulp masquerading as a film that offers deeper insight but ultimately remains the stock from which film is made.  Now, I don’t think that pulp is necessarily a derogatory term.  Pulp normally takes the shape of a specific genre, which is essentially its raison d’être.  I take a great deal of pleasure from consuming genre fiction in all forms (I was a huge fan of Stephen King growing up and remain an avid comic book reader).  Moreover, pulp can occasionally transcend its genre by becoming a formal critique, as it does in Pulp Fiction (1994) or, to bring us back to Fincher, Zodiac.  Pulp can also transcend its genre by serving as social criticism, like Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Se7enThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tries to transcend its genre and provide social criticism but fails on both fronts because its ambition results in a pedestrian film.

Quite simply, the film – a nearly faithful adaptation of Larsson’s book – tries to give us intertwining stories that embody different themes.  On the surface, Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery.  Wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) is literally haunted by the murder of his niece, Harriet.  Each year, Harriet would give her uncle a rare flower for his birthday.  Despite her disappearance, however, the flowers continue to arrive.  In order to gain closure, Vanger hires journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to investigate the case.  We discover that Mikael, the publisher of a left-leaning political magazine, has been disgraced by a libel suit; in order to ensure Mikael has the right “stuff,” Vanger hires the rough-around-the-edges hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to investigate him and prepare a report on his history.

The main issue here is that Dragon Tattoo is not just a mystery but a story primarily concerned with female empowerment.  Lisbeth is a computer hacker that has the physical appearance of a cyberpunk.  We discover that Lisbeth has a highly disturbing past, and her guardian, a kind lawyer, has suffered a stroke.  Because of this unfortunate turn of events, the state appoints Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) as Lisbeth’s financial guardian.  Bjurman attempts to control Lisbeth by granting her access to her money on the condition that she provides him with sexual favors, which begin with fellatio and end with a brutal anal rape.  These incidents become the catalyst for Lisbeth’s revenge plot against Bjurman.

I have several reservations about the social implications of Lisbeth’s revenge plot.  First, and this has been noted by Sarah Blackwood at The Hairpin, Lisbeth “is emotionally stunted but, damn it, she actualizes herself!  She punishes the people who hurt her, she sleeps with whomever she wishes, she zips around on a motorcycle, and she’s a master computer hacker.  In other words, our actualized female heroine might as well be a tiny man” (2011).  That is, Lisbeth embodies the qualities of a man so that she can become empowered.  While Blackwood is very much correct, she overlooks the complication that Lisbeth – “a tiny man” – also has to masquerade as a stereotypical woman (complete with latex breasts, designer clothing, and a top-shelf set of faux hair) to help Mikael and herself financially at the end of the film.  Essentially, in some of her most “empowered” moments, Lisbeth is either masculinized or feminized to the extreme.  In other words, the world of the film is a world of absolutes.  Lisbeth cannot simply be Lisbeth; she needs to play a role in order to function.

And play a role Lisbeth does.  She earns her role of the empowered woman by playing the role of the victimized woman (narratively, not literally).  The film only builds her up by tearing her down.  After all, she doesn’t exact violence on behalf of someone else; she exacts it on behalf of herself.  Now, perhaps this violence can be rationalized.  Perhaps Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian use Lisbeth to criticize a patriarchal society that can only function smoothly when women play submissive roles.  If this is the case, the film tries to have it both ways.  Interestingly, most of the women to whom I’ve spoken about the film are quick to criticize Fincher and Zaillian for using victimization as a means of empowerment.  After all, it’s not really Lisbeth’s conscious choice to fight the power; it’s her only option.  Is this option really an enactment of legitimate female empowerment?

What I find most disturbing about Dragon Tattoo is that Lisbeth’s narrative arc continues the morally dubious cycle of a rape-revenge fantasy (not with regard to Lisbeth, obviously; she is not a real person) that came out of exploitation films during the past thirty years.  The representation of an empowered woman as a victim is a bit of a cheat and can give the audience mixed messages.  When the violence against Lisbeth is aestheticized with the same formal vigor as the violence that she perpetrates, an ideological can of worms gets blown open.  Case in point?  There is a scene in the film where Lisbeth asks Mikael if she can kill a man guilty of heinous crimes.  Mikael says yes, and there is a pause in the delivery that renders his answer as dark comedy.

As this exchange drew to a close in the theater where I saw the film, the crowd laughed and applauded that Lisbeth provides Old Testament-inspired justice and that it was going to be fortunate enough to pay witness.  Moreover, a similar reaction occurred when Lisbeth exacted revenge against her rapist by kicking a steel dildo up his ass and tattooing “I am a rapist pig” on his chest.  Obviously, Lisbeth’s rapist is an awful individual who’s guilty of committing heinous crimes.  There is, however, something disturbing about a representation of a world where the only option against violence is violence, especially when such a representation encourages cheers of joy rather than shock, disgust, and deep thought.  I may be a pacifist or an idealist, but would it not be equally empowering for Lisbeth to simply go to the police with the evidence of the crimes?  It seems ironic that a revolution can only occur in this world if it has its roots in reactionary violence.  In the end, Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth are the twenty-first century’s embodiment of Dirty Harry (1971) and Harry Callahan.  While the method of delivery has been changed, both films celebrate retrograde violence.

This is where an unfaithful adaptation could have been a blessing in disguise.  Fincher and Zaillian do make slight deviations for the better by placing more emphasis on the mystery hook than on the corporate conspiracy theory that takes up a third of the novel.  Formally, the film is both a more efficient and rewarding piece of pulp than the book, even if the number of climaxes and resolutions the film offers would put The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) to shame.  The film, however, celebrates Lisbeth without investigating the paradoxes she represents.  Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) took a more nuanced ideological view of vigilante justice than Fincher takes here.

Moreover, considering how hard Fincher worked with Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisnenberg on complicating their portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), Dragon Tattoo feels like an even greater failure.  Lisbeth, as played by Mara, begins and ends the film as a cipher.  We understand that she’s a guarded fortress with a few cracks in the foundation, but we never learn what makes her tick.  This is where the original Swedish adaptation (2009) improved upon the novel.  In their version of Dragon Tattoo, director Niels Arden Oplev and screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg brought in backstory from The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006)  – the second volume in Larsson’s Millennium Series (2005-2007), which also features Lisbeth – to add some characterization and depth to Lisbeth and our understanding of her.

For all the reasons expressed here, I find the appeal of Dragon Tattoo mysterious.  It’s a clumsy mystery and an ideologically compromised portrait of an empowered woman (yes, I realize that judgment is coming from a male, and I have to admit that I’m very curious to find out where the comments are going to go on this one), and it neither succeeds as pure pulp nor as a progressive text wrapped in a pulpy shell.  While Fincher’s film avoids many of the pitfalls of the first issue, it cannot – because it’s a nearly faithful adaptation – avoid the ideological paradoxes of Lisbeth Salander.  The film is slickly designed and well-acted (considering what the actors have to work with), but it pales in comparison to Fincher’s other thrillers, most notably Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), both of which found formal sophistication and ideological depth far beyond their sensationalist subject matter.

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