The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)
The American version of international crime bestseller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a well-directed film—the guy who did The Social Network and Fight Club ain’t a slouch—and it has a very strong cast. It is fairly faithful to the novel, though the book’s ultimate twist is slightly compressed here, among other cosmetic changes. The problem is with the story, and because the film strips away the prose narrative’s deeper look into its main characters’ psyches, the cinematic version lacks emotional interest or resonance.
The film starts out following two characters’ barely overlapping lives: Daniel Craig plays a disgraced journalist hired to dig into a 40-year-old murder case, and Rooney Mara plays a disturbed and disturbing punk computer genius who faces sexual abuse at the hands of a court-appointed guardian. Mara’s Elizabeth Salander completely and memorably solves her problem (at least until the sequels) before really teaming up with Craig, and as she becomes simply a key supporting character in his tale, the film chugs along to no fewer than four separate endings.
First, the newly discovered history of a long-active serial killer is resolved. Then Craig is vindicated against the billionaire who ruined his career, then the question of the 40-year-old disappearance of a teenage girl is cleared up, and then the film resolves the unusual relationship that has developed between Craig and Mara. It’s a lot of endings, and that final one is more a footnote, because the film has been entirely focused on the thriller material. And the film fails to compel with any of it.
The sensational rape/abuse plot involving Salander is interesting stuff, but it has no bearing on the rest of the film. Despite which, we get to suffer through seeing her sexual coerced, and then brutally raped. In the main story, no one except Christopher Plummer, as the old guy who hires Daniel Craig, has a stake in solving the missing-girl bit. And the depth of Craig’s professional problems is never really emphasized, so making the ultimate resolution his vindication is weak. So the film is simply plot for plot’s sake. And because it’s well-executed, it’s a pleasure to watch. But ultimately it’s nothing more than that.
And While We’re on the Subject …
That was the review. Here’s a long digression: The novel was apparently motivated by writer Steig Larsson’s outrage at the way society hurts and abuses women. Salander’s brutal treatment and the way the cold case turns out to involve sexual abuse and murder of young women were ostensibly intended to highlight the plight of women. The writer even interlaces sections of the book with statistics, and fairly appalling ones, about abuse of women.
Yet Larsson undercuts himself in his portrayal of women. The novel has four significant female characters, and only the one introduced in the very last chapters of the book doesn’t end up in bed with the main character (a rather obvious stand-in for the writer himself). Women in the book are generally doing quite well in their professional worlds (Salander too, in a way, though her undisclosed history of drugs and mental illness is a huge extenuating circumstance), and one suspects that, despite the dire statistics, it’s not being stalked and dismembered by a serial killer that is the average woman’s daily burden with the patriarchy. I mean, just get rid of the serial killers and rapists, and the women are doing pretty well for themselves, what with sleeping with a leading magazine journalist and all.
It’s difficult to look at a book with a lot of sexual violence and in which all principal characters have a sexual relationship with the protagonist as a book deeply concerned with how society treats women. I’m not saying that the book must be seen as a tad bit exploitative itself, but there’s definitely an argument to be considered in that regard. And if we were to agree that the book fails in its attempt to illuminate the abuses women suffer at the hands of men, then what are we to think about all the sexualizing, violence and sexualized violence in the book?
Neither Larsson nor, in the new film, Fincher glorify the violence. Certainly the film’s version of Lisabeth’s rape does not layer a lurid element into the scene. Her attacker calmly, almost indifferently goes about his business as her chained body thrashes and convulses and she screams hysterically. And the film version cuts out one of the protagonist’s sexual liaisons, and downplays them a bit. So it’s less a problem of sensationalism than of the story, in either iteration, arguably failing to earn its right to such disturbing material.
Particularly disturbing is protagonist Mikael Blomkvist’s relationship with Lisabeth. In the book, she’s repeatedly described as looking much younger than her early twenties age, and she’s clearly a bit disturbed, despite being much more together than those around her realize … and she gets brutally raped before climbing fairly easily into Blomkvist’s bed. (It’s worth noting that Rooney Mara makes that jaunt into Daniel Craig’s bed work as well as it can—just as the heartbroken expression on her face in the film’s final scene is the movie’s only small emotional moment).
Much as the film leaves me feeling hollow because I don’t really connect with the protagonists beyond the domino-tumble of the plot (less a problem in the novel), I don’t feel great about its handling of women in context of being a bold stand on behalf of women.