The Girl with Dragon Tattoo is trash. That descriptor applies to all versions of the Swedish murder mystery/societal exposé; Stieg Larson’s bestselling novel, Neil Arden Oplev’s blockbuster adaptation of the same name and finally David Fincher’s wildly unnecessary US remake. Fincher’s is probably the most entertaining version of the story of punk super hacker and rape survivor Lisbeth Salander because of how skilled a craftsman he is but ultimately because of how thin and lurid the source material, he’s only able to make a film that only succeeds as the best directed pair of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes ever.
If you turn the sound off and are judicious with your media player’s skip button, Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is an aesthetic masterpiece. The film works best when Steve Zillian’s work-a-day script recedes and Ficher is allowed to play with motion and color, sequences that standout as excellent pieces of modular visual art in the mediocre consumer product that is the film. Salander (an excellent and inscrutable Rooney Mara) pulling off a complex a country wide scam, an Instagram hued flashbacks that reveals a dark family history and even the film’s notorious and gruesome rape scene are all conceived and staged masterfully and act as welcome relief from the numbing blandness of the film’s central mystery and its increasingly tedious combination reveals and exposition.
The plot of the film, the decades old disappearance of a rich man’s niece investigated by a disgraced crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and brooding goth girl Friday, is at times a painful slog. Not because of the way Fincher films seemly endless sequences of people pouring over files and intently staring at computer screens, which looks about as interesting as methodical research can look but because it forces the film to focus on its least interesting character. Craig has a solid take on the Blomkvist character, an ethical but weak man who bumbles into easy sex and mortal danger with the same mild befuddlement. He’s a reactive protagonist and as such a weak protagonist but what can be done with a character whose main attributes are his helpless sexiness and an inexplicable knack for exposing massive corruption? It was a smart career move of Craig’s to play such a character so different from the dashing James Bond but Blomkvist is ultimately just as much of a wish fulfillment fantasy.
This lack of grounding spills over into the rest of the supposedly hard edged film. The film’s central mystery isn’t solved through careful investigative work as much narrative contrivance. Craig’s character willingly walks into the lair of a serial killer and has a number of crucial details explained to him. Evidence needed to topple a corrupt businessman is found from an off screen computer hack. Everything is incidental and actions don’t have direct consequences so much as unrelated effects. Everything works out for the best but not because of anything the characters intended to do but because are five acts, the narrative just needed to end.
In addition to the problems of Dragon Tattoo’s airplane read plot, its themes are also deep troubling. The original title of Stieg Larson’s book was Men Who Hate Women because much of the novel deals with the troublesome relationships gender dynamics of modern day Sweden. As an example this, Larson has his tough as nails heroine Salander fall victim to a protracted sexual assault at the hands of her legal guardian, a banal monster who uses his authority to exercise his misogyny. In turn, this motivates her to aid Blomkvist in hunting down “a killer of women.” Using rape as a motivation for a female character is always a dubious choice and in this film it’s extremely problematic. The rape serves no character purpose; Salander is established as an extremely capable but damaged woman and we understand that Salander’s rapist is a man who abuses his power to abuse women as do the men in the family of the missing girl that Salander is called to investigate. Salander’s brutalization is designed to be endemic of the sexual violence and institutional sexism of the society that she lives in, but it’s also there to give the audience a dark thrill. This made obvious by the repeated pre and post rape sexualization of Salander and the fact the rape is essentially forgotten once Salander rapes her attacker. This isn’t a movie about empowering revenge fantasies or the pervasiveness of sexual violence; it’s about sexualizing violence for the sake of being edgy.
There’s a featurette on the Blu-ray for Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo where he argues with his props and special effects team about the harness that the film’s antagonist puts Craig into. The harness needs to incapacitate Craig while also looking simple enough to assemble in a relatively short amount of time. Fincher argues over and over about the believability and functionality of the device, arguing that their efforts, while being functional simply don’t feel right. In the same discussion, Fincher complains the no one would willingly get into such constricting device but as seen in the finished film, he ultimately settles for Craig’s being gassed unconscious before being bound while never addressing the contrivance of man walking into the clutches of a man he believes to be a serial killer. Fincher’s precise attention to detail has made him one of the most interesting filmmakers working and it’s dismaying to see that he couldn’t or wouldn’t apply that same finely honed discrimination to the rambling structure and loathsome gender politics of his latest work.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be rented or purchased from Amazon or Cleveland area Blockbusters, Family Videos, and Red Boxes.
Mario blogs regularly at A Polemic Killer Room.