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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

True confession: I am not a fan of this book series and Stieg Larsson’s clunky, overly expositional writing style, and never saw the Swedish adaptations. Honestly, I didn’t care that much about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo until David Fincher was announced to direct the English adaptation. Fincher’s a smart, smart guy, and I don’t see him wanting to spend his time directing an adaptation if he doesn’t see something in the source material worth developing, so his presence at the helm was enough to compel me to see his take on it. There are quite a few spoilers in what’s to follow, as this is really as much an analysis of the misogyny in the film and in Fincher’s take on the title character as it is review of the film itself. I’m not synopsizing the plot much either; I assume, if you haven’t been living under a rock the past couple years, that you know the basic gist of the story already. If you’re somehow completely without knowledge of the general plot, and you want to see this film clean, don’t read this further until you’ve seen it. Forewarned is forearmed.

Fincher is known, among other things, for his imaginative opening title sequences (the sequence for Se7en is still one of my favorites), and here he uses the opening sequence to take us into the mind of the title character and reveal bits of story from her perspective. Set to an insistently pounding remake of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” a collaboration between composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, the opening sequence is an exercise in abstraction, amorphous blobs of black (ink? tar? lava?) rising up and forming silhouetted fragments of the story to come, computer cables swirling, plugging in, all of it set to the driving beat of that song: Fincher floods us with information in a way that represents how he sees the protagonist’s brilliant but dark mind working.

It’s a stunning marriage of visuals with music to evoke ideas and drop clues to character. If only the source material he has to pull from for the rest of the film was as compelling as this title sequence, we’d have a thoroughly kick-ass movie. What we have is still pretty good stuff overall – technically practically perfect, with abundant killer camera angles and fluid tracking shots, and we have a good deal of what some folks will certainly consider a fetishization of Lisbeth Salander (or at least of Rooney Mara in the role), with a liberal sprinkling of what a few will consider misogyny, both in the source material itself (the original title of the book is Men Who Hate Women) and in this adaptation. Also, we have a brilliant director trying to mold very pulpy (read: often lame) source material into something extraordinary, and sometimes it works and sometimes it just does not.

Once we get past that opener, the film itself presents a bit of a challenge, dealing as it does with a female hero who’s not actually as interesting in the source material as we might like her to be, and this disgraced, troubled male character in Mikael Blomkvist (played here by Mr. 007, Daniel Craig) who’s a crusader of sorts against injustice, but who’s drawn into the plot in a way that stretches credibility. The book views Lisbeth from a safe emotional distance, as if even in her imaginary incarnation in Larsson’s mind she was a puzzle, impossible to solve; she is, in her own way, an abstract representation of what happens to women when men hate them, and what happens to those men in return when women fight back. Much of what readers take out of the character of Lisbeth Salander has to do with projecting their own ideas about who she is onto the fairly abstract and flat canvas Larsson created in her – and maybe this could be said, its own way, to be genius in and of itself.

So what we have here is a female antihero who’s interesting and likable in spite of her barbs and prickles, at once tough and fragile, caught in this maelstrom of the clashing energies of feminist bad-assery and utter misogyny. We see her completely vulnerable and exposed and the victim of a violent sexual attack, but even in that moment her perceived vulnerability is a cipher of sorts, as that misperception ultimately serves as the means of her flipping the tables on her attacker. And boy, does she get him back in a satisfying way that cannot help but resonate for every woman who’s ever been victimized by a man — and for every man who loves a woman who’s been hurt by other men.

Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, deliciously slimy here), the court guardian who abuses his position of power to sadistically victimize Lisbeth and gets tortured even worse in return, isn’t a character so much as he’s a symbolic stand-in for all the men in Lisbeth’s life who’ve subjugated and tortured her and made her into who she is as we meet her. He could even be said to serve as the film’s ambassador for the broader group of men referred to in the book’s original title. He’s little more than a punching bag for the idea of women striking back, but an effective one nonetheless. One of the toughest scenes in the movie is when Bjurman knocks Lisbeth out, ties her up, and brutally anally rapes her. Fincher has Mara on that bed, stripped naked, ass exposed, completely vulnerable. Is this graphic representation of sexual dominance and violence titillating to some who watch it? Undoubtedly so. But it’s very deliberate, Fincher’s choice to depict this scene as he does – I think he wants you to be turned on by it in spite of yourself, because he’s just waiting to flip you a few scenes later; any turn-on a man might get from watching it, one imagines, must be castrated pretty quickly when Lisbeth gets her payback.

We never see Lisbeth’s face while Bjurman victimizes her and this is clearly also a deliberate choice on Fincher’s part; Bjurman doesn’t see Lisbeth as a person, he doesn’t want to see her face as he violates her. But what we see is that even tied up, naked, knowing that she’s about to be violated and hurt and that there’s nothing she can do to change this, Lisbeth isn’t a passive victim. She screams in rage, she fights ferociously against her attacker with every bit of her body she can move. She’s furious at him, yes, but she’s also angry with herself, for misjudging what Bjurman intended to do with her. But even at her most physically vulnerable, being violently raped, Lisbeth knows that this – like the earlier blowjob scene – is a means to an end; she knows that there’s a tiny camera hidden on the bag she casually set on that chair, and that it’s recording every second of what Bjurman is doing to her; the harder she fights, the more he has to fight to subdue her, and she’s far too calculating to not know exactly what she’s doing knowing the camera is on her. Bjurman may be getting sadistic pleasure from raping her so brutally, but what he’s doing will ultimately be her ticket to freedom from his tyranny. And when she turns tyrannical on him, brother, she is every misogynist asshole’s worst nightmare.

Is the idea of men who hate women, men who rape and victimize and brutalize women, men who view women as their own means to an end, misogynistic? Yes, absolutely. But a story or film that has characters or actions that are misogynistic, that uses misogyny as a means of exploring gender-driven violence, does not make the story itself, or the writer, or the director, a misogynist. It’s how those ideas are explored, and what the philosophical underpinnings are, that tells the real tale. In Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth is both victim and victimizer; she’s a strong, tough chick who takes a beating but gives back that and then some.

In Fincher’s view of this story, Blomkvist is a crusader against injustice, albeit a flawed one. The long-standing relationship he has with his co-editor, Erika Berger (Robin Wright) is an exercise in feminism: it’s she who sets the terms, she who is married to one man but also in a relationship with another. As for his relationship with Lisbeth, well, on the one hand you could say that Fincher fetishizes this idea of this sexy, pierced and tattooed, petite woman-girl who hops into bed and straddles the injured Blomkvist – especially given how quickly Fincher has Blomkvist flip Lisbeth on her back so he can take her from a more dominant sexual position. But on the other hand, Fincher uses this to show how it’s Lisbeth who ultimately has the power. When Blomkvist is strung up for slaughter in the basement of horror, awaiting what he surely know will be a slow and painful death, it’s not his penis that saves him, or his testosterone, but the tiny, tough heroine (although admittedly you do have to look past the lameness of the idea that the bad guy would just leave all the doors to his torture chamber wide open for her to stroll in and save the day).

Fincher emphasizes Lisbeth’s sexuality, yes, but even that much-ballyhooed poster that depicts a nude Mara with Craig’s arm protectively around her is a deliberate misdirection that plays against the core idea of the story and characters: it sets us up to think the man is the protector, when it’s really this girl, fragile and exposed on the surface but tough and tenacious underneath, who saves his ass. Lisbeth is a woman who’s been used and abused by men her whole life, but she hasn’t shut down completely. She’s asocial, yes, and she doesn’t think much of rules or arbitrary ideas about what constitutes authority, but she’s not without the ability to still make emotional connections. The misogyny that’s defined much of her life has not defined her as a person. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s resilient. She’s like so many women who are victims of violence at the hands of men, still standing, still making her way. And in the end, outsmarting them all.

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One Response to “Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

  1. Robert Rannebarger says:

    My wife and I loved the movie and can’t wait for the sequel.
    Lisbeth’s dark emotional state exists within the thin divide between functional and dis-functional.
    Her best defence is to let the world believe she is insane, while knowing she is not.

    Great movie.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon