The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By dan cava
December 21, 2011
It should be said from the get-go that we are in very dark territory here. The world of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s bisexual, anarchic, androgynous, vengeful cyberpunk anti-hero Lisbeth Salander is one in which violence and injustice are frowned upon, but not much else. Often in a situation such as this, we reviewers add a little caveat, something to the effect of, "There’s plenty of [insert objectionable content], so those easily offended should be aware.” But with Dragon Tattoo we’re past that point, so anyone seeing the film should take its R rating and the accompanying content listing very seriously.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a near brilliant adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s astonishingly popular source material, and its cinematic virtues are many. And one of the privileges of reviewing for RELEVANT is the chance to add an extra moral dimension to our investigation of films. In the case of this film, it would be irresponsible of me to do otherwise. So how dark is dark? Well, in a somewhat remarkable feat of moral juggling, director David Fincher manages to step around the primary hypocrisy of the books, namely Larsson’s tendency to decry sexual violence while constantly offering up women as a source of titillation. Unlike Larsson, Fincher presents Dragon Tattoo’s lurid subject matter without much eroticization. We’re never asked to enjoy the numerous instances of nudity and sex, just to discern them as manifestations of the characters’ internal lives and external circumstances.
Fincher’s treatment and Rooney Mara’s magnificent portrayal of Lisbeth Salander is the clearest example of this delicate balancing act. In Mara’s hands Salander is sexual and aggressive, but not necessarily appealing. She’s more alien than erotic, more feral than foxy. Her promiscuity seems to arise less from sexual liberty than from some great rift in her psyche. There are two key intimate relationships, one forced and one consensual, that illustrate this with tragic clarity. Mara’s ability to navigate these scenes with abandon and vulnerability is Oscar-worthy.
There’s a not-so-subtle theme of sexual violence against women in Larsson’s series, and because movies deal in images, this element could have become another lurid liability. Here again, Fincher makes all the right moves by infusing the entire proceedings with menace and apprehension (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is an opus of anxiety) but scrimping on the gore as much as the plot will allow. In its most basic shape, Dragon Tattoo is the fairly quiet story of Salander and disgraced journalist Mikeal Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) investigating a number of decades-old murders. To quicken audience pulses, lesser directors might have caved in to the temptation of depicting the ancient slayings in grisly flashbacks. This is Fincher’s third movie about serial killers; I got the sense that before he started filming Dragon Tattoo, the famously obsessive filmmaker had crossed his previous approaches to murder off some imaginary list. Rather than revisit the carnage of Se7en or the jolts of Zodiac, Fincher mostly gives us indirect glimpses of cruelty via old blurry photographs. There are just three instances of strong on-screen violence in as many hours, and their impact is made powerful by their infrequency. All things considered, this is a huge relief.
Another small step in the right direction comes from the movie’s handling of religion. I know we shouldn’t be overly sensitive to Hollywood’s portrayal of Christianity (does any special interest group ever get a perfect depiction?), but I notice when Bibles come out in movies. There’s a sense from the novel that religion and holy books inflame sexual violence by perpetuating intellectual immaturity and thrusting primitive gender roles into modern times. It’s subtle, but screenwriter Steve Zallian sprinkles just enough religious positivity to counterbalance the murderer’s scriptural distortions. Unlike Larsson, the movie doesn’t take a position on Christianity. This too is a relief.
It may be clear at this point that this new American-made version has a very dynamic relationship with the book. It’s an improvement on the book because the thematic material (sex, violence and religion) is handled much more responsibly. It’s also an improvement on the recent Swedish-language adaptation because it retains more of the book’s best dramatic material. Like the Lord of the Rings movies (and this is certainly the only similarity), the tone, characters and major plot points are so beautifully handled that we have trouble seeing how thoroughly the story has been streamlined. The movie is not built on adrenaline and surprise (the identity of the killer may come as shock to no one), but rather on the novel’s fascinating people, scintillating details and relentless dread. Fincher’s film flows like few others in the genre. Each scene connects beautifully to the next, with Fincher’s always immaculate camera work and careful pacing pulling us steadily along.
The teaser trailer for this movie called it “the feel-bad movie of Christmas” and to that end, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an enormous success. It gives new viewers a dark and absorbing experience and gives lovers of the book more than what they got the first time around. But dark in this case is still dark. If you are on the fence, you have this review; the rest is up to you.
Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and the co-host of Moviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial work can be seen at vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.