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Non-Review Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

I will confess that I’m not a huge fan of the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was just too bleak, with every male character existing as some form of sexual predator, shot against a drab grey backdrop and with nothing but unrelenting cynicism to propel it. I don’t want to describe David Fincher’s version as “softer” – there are still any number of scenes that will have viewers squirming in their seats – so perhaps “smoother” or “rounded” represents a better choice of adjective. While there are still some pacing issues in the last third, Fincher succeeds in adapting the best-selling book in a fashion that makes it just as fascinating as it is grim.

Opening a cold case...

Of course, the serial killer has often been used to explore latent prejudice or institutionalised sexism present in modern society. I’d still argue that the modern iteration of the genre can trace its roots back to Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, even if most readers would probably cite The Silence of the Lambs as a more thorough and thoughtful exploration of gender roles in serial killer fiction. While elements of the genre obvious predate that powerful piece of thriller literature, I’d make the case that Harris offered the most thorough and defining categorisation, defining and explicitly exploring a subtext that has long been an essential ingredient of this type of fiction.

I think Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo can be seen as a spiritual successor, and Fincher seems to shrewdly acknowledge this. The climax of the film has Mikael Blomkvist skulking around a killer’s ultra-modern house in a manner that calls to mind the climax of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, an adaptation of Harris’ Red Dragon. Hell, one could even point to Fincher’s brilliantly awkward insertion of Enya’s Sail Away into the scene as an homage to the surreal use of Inna Gadda da Vida in Mann’s film.

A Plum(mer) Role?

Still, the serial killer remains a potent avenue to explore themes of sexist and misogyny. I suspect that there’s the historical influence of Jack the Ripper at play, anchoring the disturbing blend of sexuality and violence within the public mind. Or maybe it’s something more straight-forward than that. After all, studies indicate that most serial killers are likely to be white males, something perhaps ripe for that sort of societal commentary. The film does go out to point to divides based on ethnicity as well as gender. The killer boasts of going uncaught because he targets immigrants, rendering the use of The Immigrant Song as the movie’s theme somewhat bitter. A jaded old cop casually suggests that most unsolved murder cases end up with “gyspies” as suspects.

Still, there’s something peculiarly Swedish about the trilogy, and I felt a bit uneasy about the adaptation handled by an American director with two distinctly non-Swedish leads. Larsson’s book was based on a personal experience, and the story offers a fairly harsh critique of Swedish culture, nested in a secret history of Nazism and autocratic abuses. Hell, beneath the smooth exterior of one of the most efficiently socialist systems in the world is one of the highest reported rate of sexual assault within the European Union. Larsson’s book seems to suggest that Hamlet might not have been too far off when we stated there was something rotten in the State of Denmark.

Mara's no hack(er)...

There’s a sense that international audiences “might not get it.” Indeed, the title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in Larsson’s native Swedish translates as Men Who Hate Women, a name that the publishers felt might have been a little too confrontational for international readers. I think that Fincher’s film works so well because it contextualises the issues. It retains the setting and the background of the original work, but it offers a somewhat broader and more nuanced examination of latent misogyny and sexism than the rather blunt portrayal in the original adaptation.

In the Swedish film, it felt like every male character with the exception of Blomkvist himself was some sort of creepy sexual predator waiting to strike. Here, the distinctions are more nuanced. Of course, the crimes themselves remain, as do two incredibly painful-to-watch sequences featuring the title character. However, Fincher seems to allow his story more space to breath. We see, for example, the guilt that Henrik Vanger feels for so casually dismissing his niece when she had something to tell him. “I can’t even remember what I felt was more important,”he confesses, as we see his younger self brush off the young girl.

Warning signals...

Hell, Mikhail Blomkvist himself gets a bit more development here. We explore the character’s sexuality here, as we get a bit more space devoted to the sexual relationship he shares with his editor, and as we see how his indifference towards the women he sleeps with has consequences he’s not even aware of. You don’t have to be a rapist or a Nazi to objectify women, and these sorts of latent prejudices don’t tend to announce themselves with killing sprees or a membership of the Hitler Youth.

When Blomkvist interviews the professed Nazi among the family of the murdered girl, he suggests that he’s the only honest one. “In your family?” Mikhail asks. “In Sweden,” the old man clarifies. When he states that his relatives don’t tend to visit him that often, Blomkvist stares at the memorabilia adorning the walls and remarks he could “redecorate.”The old man responds by asking if a sleek IKEA table might make people more comfortable with his obvious prejudices. That sad truth is that it probably would. The killer shows nothing but disdain for those leaving bodies strewn across the country like signed works of art, preferring to work in secrecy, keeping his elaborate torture bunker deep underground, hidden from sight, and dumping the bodies at sea.

Putting the case to bed...

Indeed, the killer’s grim parlour is one of the more interesting pieces of set design I’ve seen this year, and perfectly fitting with Fincher’s underlying themes. Half of the room, where he hangs his prey before going to work on them, is what one might expect from watching the Saw movies or other grim grotesque murder films. It’s all ugly tools and plastic bags and suspension wires. However, the rest of the room is perfectly swanky, with stylish wooden panels on the wall, carpet on the floor and even a nice leather couch for lounging. It’s horrifying because it’s so surreal, and yet its the perfect illustration of the movie’s central theme: these attitudes aren’t typically thrown around in the open where you would expect them, but hidden in more comfortable and familiar surroundings where you’d least expect them.

Still, there’s more to like about Fincher’s film than the way the director tackles the key themes of his source material, which I’d argue is much stronger than the earlier adaptation. Fincher is a director with great style. It’s easy to imagine a more mundane adaptation of this material, a film with the same script that might have turned out “functional” or “perfectly okay.” However, it’s the wonderful smaller touches that establish the film as uniquely Fincher’s. I adore the wonderfully dissonant use of Sail Away towards the climax of the film, in the same way I loved the use of In the Hall of the Mountain King in The Social Network.

A working relationship?

There’s a wonderful shot (used in the trailer) of Mikhail approaching the Vanger property, the grey property subtly distinct from the white snow and white sky. And then there’s the opening sequence, which looks like a James Bond intro filtered through the surreal sexualised imagination of H.R. Giger, as we’re treated to grotesque and disturbing shots of characters smothered and suffocated in oil, Lisbeth herself swallowed by a selection of hands. Choreographed to The Immigrant Song, it’s powerful stuff – and it’s packed with the sort of imagery that makes me wish Fincher could get a “do over” on Alien 3.

Of course, Fincher’s assembled a powerhouse cast. Each and every member of his ensemble does a fantastic job with the role, no matter how small. It is really great to see Steven Berkoff and Christopher Plummer making the most of relatively modest roles, and it’s nice to see Joely Richardson and Stellan Skarsgård put to good use. Of course, when you can hire actors like Julian Sands and David Dencik to play speechless characters in flashback sequences, you’re doing something right.

A Stellan performance?

Daniel Craig makes for a solid lead, but I’ll confess to being a bit confused about his accent. Of course, accents are a little bit redundant, and it’s strange to watch the movie wrestle with the fact that it’s a distinctly Swedish movie with the cast speaking and reading English. You’ll spot a lot of Swedish writing in the background, but all plot-relevent information is provided in English. It’s something that’s always fascinated me about films set in foreign countries. I don’t mind if the cast use accents or not (after all, why are they speaking English at all?), but it’s strange that everyone but Craig goes to the effort of putting one on. It’s strange to listen to him converse with other actors and to believe the characters are both supposed to share the same nationality. Still, it’s a minor nitpick.

Despite the fact Craig’s name comes first, the real attention is focused on Rooney Mara, and it’s a powerful performance. I suspect that we’ll be seeing and hearing quite a bit more from her over the next little while. The role of Lisbeth Salander launched the career of Noomi Rapace, and I hope it will do the same for Mara. Mara does an excellent job making the role feel like her own, portraying the broken young lady. I suspect that Mara might have better material to work with, only because Salander feels more fleshed out as a character here than in the original adaptation, but it’s a performance that is absolutely captivating.

Heading off sexism...

If I do have one criticism of the film, it’s the awkward third act, which seems to function largely as a sequel hook. I don’t object to sequel hooks in general, if they’re handled well and quickly. By all means, tease us with the next film, but don’t spend the last half-hour of this film starting the next one. Here, the movie just keeps going after the main plot has tied itself up. It’s only Mara’s fascinating performance as Salander and the way the movie concludes on a character beat the prevents it from feeling like a complete waste. I suspect that this material might have been better served by either (a.) glossing over it quickly, or (b.) shunting most of it off to the start of the next film.

Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint from a solid adaptation. It’s not the best work of Fincher’s career, but it’s another solid addition to an impressive filmography.

6 Responses

  1. Good review.
    You seemed to have liked it more than I did.
    Yes, Fincher’s style makes everything look and feel 100 times better than in fact it is.
    On the whole I thought it was a bit “so what?”…
    here’s my review http://wp.me/p19wJ2-sR

    • Thanks. I really liked it. I can see what you’re saying about Fincher’s direction improving a film with flaws, as I think this is a substantial improvement over the Swedish version, but I still think there’s a great deal of talent in that, and I think that Fincher does a great job of getting the film’s points across without seeming so… anti-male… as the original adaptation.

  2. The opening titles also made me think of “Alien 3,” although I was one of the few to be as put off by them as I was by his stab at Alien. Viewing the amazing trailer for “Prometheus” moments earlier certainly didn’t hurt chances of a mental connection.

    I liked the film, and felt that it, indeed, surpassed the Swedish film in terms of understanding Blomkvist. The downside to that is that many of the characters loose that certain noir mystique that the original seemed to be steeped in, even if we didn’t learn a lot about them ultimately.

    Some characters see a more dramatic shift. Lisbeth isn’t merely expanded upon here but altered. She goes from dangerous and masculine to shy with mood-swings. Gone is the Lisbeth who doesn’t wish to stay and bed and cuddle, in is the safer Lisbeth who comments how much fun it is to be investigating with a male partner.

    Don’t get me wrong, Mara did a wonderful job but the screenplay itself, in addition to a certain cuteness the actress can’t seem to overcome, acts to soften the threat of Lisbeth to masculine dominance.

    The “sequel hook,” as you call it, of the third act was one of the only bits that remotely justifies the existence of this very early remakIn other words “prevent[ing] it from feeling like a complete waste.”

    Fincher’s version is certainly more stylish than the original Swedish picture but it wrecks elements that were held in suspense originially and drags out portions in order to match up awkward time lines. It’s not a bad film. As stated previously, there are a number of ways in which it improves on the first take. Ultimately, though, I never got enough out of it additionally to warrant it having been made.

    We all know the reason Fincher felt “compelled” to make this his next project. Hint: It’s why they call it show business.

    … My review will be up tomorrow afternoon.

    • Thanks, Stu, looking forward to it. I do have to respectfully disagree, though – but then what would be the fun if everybody agreed all the time? I think that it’s a movie that actually does a fairly decent job of using the serial killer thriller to explore society’s attitude towards gender relations in a slightly more nuanced way than the Swedish original, but I think our opinions on this might be diametrically opposed – after all, you seem to like the sequel hook, while I only liked that wonderful last shot where Lisbeth realised that male/female relationships are more complex than she thinks. Or that you don’t have to be a rapist or murdering pig to have a slightly skewed attitude towards women.

  3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a masterwork of fine craftsmanhip. When I reached the final page I was disappointed that there was no more to read. I did not want the story to end. A middle aged journalist, and a troubled but incredibly talented young woman who works as a PI intersect to solve a labyrinthine plot. Lisbet’s story would have made an incredible novel on its own. She has Aspergers and is trapped in an awful school /social system with no advocates and non-existent mental health services. It is really dark in its themes somewhat like the Kite Runner. I cannot wait to read the sequels.

    All in all, its one of the best mystery /thrillers I’ve read from the last decade. In fact comparing it to the Da Vinci Code, the characters are not simplistic one dimensional cut outs at all. The rich characterizations and explorations of dark behaviour remind me of Elizabeth George. I’m waiting for the two final books of this trilogy. It is so sad that the author has passed away and we won’t be meeting the characters for more than just 3 books.

    • I don’t know. I wasn;t convinced by the adaptations of the sequels. However, if Fincher and his team (or a director of similar quality) return for the sequels to the American version, count me in.

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