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Non-Review Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a decently-made little thriller. It’s interesting that David Fincher has been selected to helm the inevitable English-language remake of the film, as it feels like a spiritual companion to se7en. While that Fincher thriller concerned itself with a broken world populated with seven flavours of deadly sin, this Swedish film is only really interested in one. It’s a brutal commentary on what it suggests is a harsh and repressively misogynistic society, one that victimises and commoditises women. However, it veers a little bit too far into sensationalist territory – fixated on the idea that men in positions of authority are inevitably sexual sadists – and its contents make for excedingly grim viewing.

Never quite gripping...

It’s telling that the original Swedish title (Män som hatar kvinnor) translates as “Men Who Hate Women” and that the English language translation perhaps felt the title a tad extreme, favouring a more generic title based around what is sure to be the franchise’s breakout character. And yet, the movie suggests, these sorts of misogynistic sadistic pigs are everywhere.

There’s a scene early in the movie when the film’s female protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, exacts a brutal revenge on a person in authority who has sexually abused her. We’re meant to laud her as she brutalises this individual and blackmails him into a cooperative position with an incriminating tape. The film, however, seems fixated on the idea of Lisbeth as a victim (or as a victimised individual ultimately empowered by her own actions) – there’s no thought to wider ramifications. Although we may question her actions, we’re shown that she doesn’t ever go “too far” (ther’e a line the story won’t take the character across – lest she lose the sympathy of the audience) – it’s interesting to note the types of actions that she can commit which stay on the right side of that line and those which cross it.

Though she has this sadist pig under her thumb, there’s no consideration given to the possibility that there might be victims of his sadism other than Lisbeth out there (as one assumes he doesn’t hold a position of authority solely over Lisbeth, given he interacts with her maybe once a week), who may not be sophisticated enough to record the violence (or that there may be other individuals within the framework like the sadist who would be weeded out by simply releasing the blackmail tape – like a far more extreme example of the “casting couch” tape in China). The suggestion is that all of this abuse takes place in a vacuum, when it doesn’t – the film expect us to cheer for the victory of individual victims over their tormentors, while disregarding the wider impact.

There is a much more effective scene earlier on in which the hacker is confronted by a bunch a thugs in the subway tunnels. It’s a quick and brutal affair in which a punch of young men believe that they can prey on a woman because she is weaker than them (while everyone in the station stands around and watches), but she lashes back out at them – just as aggressive and violent as her would-be tormentors. It feels like a more organic form of victimisation than than a sexual sadist guardian who just so happens to get our angry young heroine as a subject. I realise what the movie is attempting to do – to illustrate that such sexual violence reaches higher up than underground train stations – but the scene with the abusive authority figure seems almost “convenient” in the way that it handled.

I feel like I'm pressing the issue...

The film broaches the subject that the cycle of abuse is not so simple by suggesting that Lisbeth herself has been “broken” by a long history, but she never really crosses what might be a moral event horizon. She victimises her abusers, but is never portrayed as anything other than other than a hero. Sure, she’s a psychologically damaged character, but the movie never suggests that brutality towards her has fundamentally warped her – it has made her question authority and assert her individuality, but she’s never hurt an innocent person in any way, shape or form. In fact, she uses the fact that she came out okay (and the movie uses it by extension) to suggest that there is no cause for this sort of abusive or violent behaviour that isn’t ultimately the person’s own fault.

In fairness, the movie does articulate the issue of personal responsibility as measured against outside factors at its finale, but in a token manner. The movie’s protagonist suggests that the movie has already decided which is the “right” side of the argument.

The movie raises some valid points about the inherent misogyny of modern culture – “type in a woman’s name and you go right to a porn site,” Lisbeth muses at one point – but this valid commentary is far outweighed by the extremes that it portrays. Lisbeth is never confronted with a casual or passive sexism, but the movie centres on the investigation of a missing girl near a family with Nazi associations. Perhaps the invocation of Nazism is a factor socially relevant in Sweden (where the growth of the far right is the subject of increasing concern), but it also evokes Godwin’s Law. This misogynistic neo-national socialism is taken to ridiculous degrees, as if the film challenges you, “What’s the only thing worse than a rapist?” The answer is, “A Nazi rapist.” The notion of an old European aristocratic family with close ties to the Nazis would be tired and cliché if it popped up in an American film, so it’s hard to take it seriously here.

I suppose these are all legitimate concerns, but it feels like they are being played up to a ridiculous degree. In fairness, the movie does broach tough questions about how we treat women in modern society and how we, collectively, deal with our pasts, but it just seems a very trite way to address it. The film centres around a pair of victims – Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who was set up and successfully sued for libel by a big evil corporation – who manage to take on all sorts of evils nestled snuggly in the establishment, while seeking justice for a long-lost teenage girl.

Technically, the film is well made. It’s shot well and the cast do a great job. I watched the dub version with my family and I must confess that some of the voice cast seemed familiar, but I can’t place them. There doesn’t seem to be a list up on-line. The dub is actually as close to a perfect dub that I have ever seen.

The movie itself offers a fairly compelling mystery narrative, but it just seems a little too heavy-handed in the way that it deals with sexual violence towards women – it might have done better to subtly explore more conventional societal attitudes and how they contribute to this culture rather than venturing so far into extremes. There’s a lot to be said and an interesting discussion to be had, but The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t tell us anything particularly interesting.

7 Responses

  1. I actually liked Lisbeth’s struggle against a male-dominated Swedish culture that subjugates and abuses women who exist in it, but for me that’s the most interesting part of the movie. To the rest, I think it’s telling of just how bad 2010 has been that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received so much positive praise on its US release; it’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination but it’s not particularly good, either, and its script totally defuses the story’s drama and tension by removing some of the stakes set up in the book.

    No movie adaptation of a book should be 100% faithful and should be able to stand on its own but man, at least make sensible edits when cutting material. That’s my main reaction to this one.

    • And that’s also most of my reaction to the Harry Potter films, but you give the people what they want. I just felt like The Girl with Dragon Tattoo was throwing a weight around my neck – and then the bad guys turn out to be Nazis! Not neo-Nazis, actual Naxis!

  2. Interesting characters but the central mystery left a bit to be desired for me. I enjoyed the movie but didn’t think it was nearly as noteworthy as the consensus opinion have made it out to be. Blomqvist is a bit too bland and not as well developed as Lisbeth.

  3. I’m glad someone else has seen this and disliked it. While the moral grays of the film are presented as heroic I think critics should have taken a step back and seen Lisbeth, while a victim, is just as much a part of the problem as the rest of them.

    • Yep. It’s a cycle of violence, but the film actually seems to endorse that – at least she’s using her violence on those who deserve it, almost.

  4. “inherent” misogyny of modern culture? seems a peculiar turn of phrase for someone who’s advocating a greater sense of context in the film. what’s the point of seeing a greater context if you believe that context has no origins and is permanent.

    outside of that, really appreciate this piece.

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