The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Dir. David Fincher. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgard

All of us can name action movies or thrillers which don’t have all that much perspective to speak of, but have enough of a plot to remain entertaining and effective. This is Se7en, a movie which gets a lot of plot mileage out of punning on some random Desert Fathers stuff and having come out in a time where “performative darkness” was considered stylish as opposed to sophomoric. (Between the seven deadly sins jazz in Se7en and the fairly dumb Leviticus murders in this, David Fincher has definitely found a niche.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the opposite problem, and it’s a much rarer one for a thriller. The perspective on this movie is what keeps it engaging. The story itself has problems, and the reason that this is still a good movie—out of the nine Finchers I’ve seen, I’d put this third without too much fuss—is because the perspective speaks loud and clear even when the plot is a little too simple on the macro level and a little too dumb on the micro.

It takes over an hour for Mikael (Craig) and Lisbeth (Mara) to run into each other. She already knows who he is, having done a background check par excellence and sans legal scruples for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). He does not know her from Eve, although the piercings would probably give him a clue if that particular guessing game were entered into. Their relationship turns sexual with a speed that is not alarming, quite, but surprising. Lisbeth’s always playing everything so tight to the vest, and Mikael is involved with the other co-owner of the magazine, Erika (Robin Wright). Nor does one get the sense that they are an obvious pair, given what different straits they come from and how differently they live; just because two people live in a cottage together and track down a murderer hardly seems to imply that they’d take up even for a marginal amount of time. The movie is not interested in this part of the plot, really, and that’s fine. It’s something that I imagine would be a necessary piece of the story if there were going to be a Girl Who Played with Fire that retained Craig and Mara and replaced Fincher with like, Sam Raimi or something. Same with that sequence at the end of the movie that feels really tacked on. Lisbeth, armed with a wig and a vision of performative femininity to tickle a dozen scholars, brings down Wennerstrom’s (Ulf Friberg) secret funds and gets him murdered too. This is the real gift for Mikael, but she wants to signify it with a pricey leather jacket. Both of these gifts fall flat. The latter is not necessarily his style anyway, but the former is a serious labor of love, or at least of affection. Wennerstrom is Mikael’s great nemesis, the man who successfully brought a libel case against Mikael that put him and his magazine on the brink of financial insolvency. That Lisbeth destroys Wennerstrom with the same efficiency that she destroys Martin Vanger (Skarsgard) or her rapist social worker Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), men who were more evil but less insulated, is a sort of crowning achievement.

Yet it’s also the most hollow, for two reasons. One, Mikael seems not to see Lisbeth’s fingerprints on this operation, which is stunning ignorance after she basically solved a dozen grisly murders by her lonesome. Two, Mikael has picked up with Erika again as if nothing has happened. Returned to the relative glory of running this Stockholm magazine, vindicated in the press and in society, he has no more use for Lisbeth. She knows it as soon as she sees him picked up again with his conventional woman, and she tosses the jacket away like it’s the heaviest junk food wrapper. I don’t think it matters much what happens to Wennerstrom, frankly. That’s a loose end that could have been solved, if it were even necessary, with a line of dialogue. I’m sure that this entire sequence at the end of the movie, nailed on as it is, probably serves more as setup for a Played with Fire. (If this has nothing to do with the other books in this trilogy, grant me grace, because I am never going to read them.) Yet I’m glad it’s here anyway. A movie exists independently of its prequels or sequels, shockingly enough, and as a kind of slow epilogue I think it’s pretty effective. The story of Lisbeth Salander’s life thus far is that men are, as a race, untrustworthy and dangerous. The only exception she has to that is her initial social worker, who is hospitalized early on in the movie. Nils Bjurman is dangeorus. Martin Vanger is dangerous. And now, perhaps not quite dangerous but emphatically untrustworthy, stands Mikael Blomberg. He’s hardly the monster that Bjurman is, that Martin was. But in the last minute of the movie, he’s put onto a continuum with those men. It’s a surprising choice for the movie to make, but it’s a remarkable way to maintain its perspective: all men, no matter how decent they appear, are capable of real cruelty. That’s more interesting than anything that happens in the film’s plot, and it’s more interesting than just about any of the largely unexplored intimations that the story provides. Dragon Tattoo kind of veers right up to the edge of making potentially salient points throughout the movie before ultimately kind of faltering; the connection between the Nazis in the Vanger family and their history of violent abuse, rape, and murder is spoken more than explored, for example. But this one, that all men have this capacity to be cruel and to do cruel things, is essential to the entire picture,

I think there are only two sequences in the movie that demand attention in the way that this strong perspective of the film demands attention. The first is the scene where Lisbeth returns to Bjurman’s flat in order to exact her revenge on him. The second is the scene where Martin wonders audibly about why Mikael came back into the house when he knew that Martin would kill him. (I really like the sequence where Henrik explains to Mikael the facts of the case as he understands them. It’s cut well, it’s exciting to hear about. It’s only plot exposition, but it’s plot exposition that feels essential, maybe even vibrant. And of course, after Knives Out it’s hard not to make the slightly hilarious connection about Daniel Craig investigating Christopher Plummer’s horrible family.)

There are multiple scenes preceding the sequence where Lisbeth, to say it in the blandest terms possible, teaches Bjurman a lesson. There is an oral rape in her first encounter with him, and then an anal rape (she miscalculated when she went to his apartment, expecting more of the first, but was overpowered). Those scenes, to Fincher’s great credit, are neither romantic nor attractive nor sexy. They are purely about power, and the movie recognizes that this is primarily a sickness of men and not really about sex but sadism. The second scene is the most brutal of the three, one which gives us the barest sense of relief in knowing that Lisbeth is filming this crime, knowing that she has more than ample proof of Bjurman’s evil. All the same, the screams do not fade away easily, and the burning lights, somehow all facing up to find the camera, do not fade away either. The next time they meet, Lisbeth is prepared. The coup de grace is the tattoo she leaves on his torso once she’s knocked him out (“I AM A RAPIST PIG”), though she certainly does other physical damage, and she also tells him in no uncertain terms that any deviation from a set of strict instructions she has will lead to the video evidence leaking online. This is a brutal scene as well, and there is a distinct dearth of triumph in it. There’s retribution in this scene, certainly, a physical eye for an eye style of justice that Lisbeth metes out on top of the permanent tattoo that will, doubtless, be as permanent as Lisbeth’s memories of Bjurman’s assaults. It’s also impossible to cheer for what happens, not because Bjurman doesn’t deserve this but because there’s nothing fun about it. It’d be like cheering at a murderer’s hanging back in olden times; the sentiment may be right, but it’s somehow more disrespectful to do that to the dead than it is fitting to cheer the expunging of some evil. It’s an approach which makes Lisbeth an operator, not a girlboss, and it’s compelling.

As for Martin Vanger’s untimely return home, one that Mikael cannot quite escape from because of his misdaventure with a rock, it feels different than other scenes of evil men toying with their prey than many others. (Honestly, it has nothing to do with “Orinoco Flow.”) Maybe it’s because the method of bondage that Martin has chosen is basically unique, using a pulley system, a neck brace, and a plastic bag on Mikael, or maybe because it’s unusual to see this scene play out between two men in a mainstream movie. It is impossible to imagine, amusingly, James Bond in this situation. Though Bond is more dangerous than Blomberg, he would never be trussed up so helplessly, with so little opportunity for escape. Most of all, though, there’s no secret plan that Martin describes. The only thing that I think is new information is that Martin’s father sexually abused him (and Harriet, though that doesn’t really feel “new”); even for a serial killer, Martin seems surprisingly unfazed by that particular sin. The film’s standout monologue takes place here as well, and although there’s definitely some baked freshman energy in Martin’s rumination on why people are more afraid of offending than they are protective of themselves, or why people always seem to believe they can talk their way out of situations they cannot in fact escape, it’s compelling in its own right. Skarsgard does a good job as your calm crazy guy, the one who plans everything meticulously and can use his money and isolated living space as tools to further his depravity. (You’d think he would have locked the door to his house or his murder chamber, but hey, it’s a movie.) In his hands, a character who should be basically empty, no more than a reveal, turns out to have one genuinely engaging thought to spill, an idea I’d never had, before he gets his face caved in with a golf club and his body exploded along with his SUV.

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