CINEMA: Slaying The Beast

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011, directed by David Fincher, 158 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The U.S. version of Stieg Larsson’s international best-selling thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has arrived, a little more stylish and pumped up, yet containing much of the same problematic structure that dogged its previous adaptation and the source novel itself. Like the Harry Potter series, this film adaptation has ballooned to a jumbo length of more than two and a half hours to capture the many details of the novel, whether it makes for energetic storytelling or not.

In an unnecessarily convoluted plot, the story follows the investigative journalist Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he is hired by a wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the death of his teenage niece 45 years prior. The case brings him to an isolated Swedish island where Vanger’s extended family live, all in open disdain for each other. Soon Blomkvist is uncovering Nazi pasts, financial chicanery and increasingly brutal threats.

Daniel Craig gets little out of an under-written role but the film belongs to Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, the “girl” of the title. Pierced, closely pruned and punked-out, Lisbeth is what has made Larsson’s triology a phenomena, selling more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. Violent, butch, and brooding, Lisbeth is a ward of the state due to an incident in her childhood, and the t-shirt she wears nicely sums up her attitude, “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.” Lisbeth is a master hacker (is there any other kind?) and she is recruited by Blomkvist to help solve this long-standing mystery.

Lisbeth was first brought to life two years ago when a Swedish-filmed trilogy of the character’s adventures was made for European television and theatrical in the U.S. The films made a star of the previously unknown Noomi Rapace and it may well do the same for Rooney Mara but she is done no favors by Steven Zallian’s plodding script. David Fincher, the director of the artfully ghoulish Seven and the artfully brutal Fight Club, hardly seems like the type of filmmaker to soften the story’s infamous sexual violence but he somehow manages to subtly soften Lisbeth’s hard edges for blockbuster audience consumption. Her gut-wrenching revenge against her rapist parole officer is intact but in other details he downplays the sadistic pleasure that Lisbeth receives from dishing out violence to powerful, corrupt men. Worse yet, this version restores the novel’s improbable romance between Blomkvist and Lisbeth, wisely dispensed with in the Swedish version, while simultaneously giving her a Daddy Complex that serves to weaken a character we are drawn to for her strength.

Fincher’s approach underlines the contradictions inherent in all tellings of this story, the uncomfortable mixture of of sexual titillation and feminism (the book’s Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women.) We see a lot of Mara’s naked body, beginning with her rape scene, while her rapist is afforded a shadowy modesty. Likewise, in her tryst with Blomkvist the camera surveys Lisbeth’s body but allows Blomkvist to retain his modesty. There’s even a disturbing promotional shot of Craig coolly staring at the camera while his star stands next to him naked. It makes for an uncomfortable way to promote a film about a character who is invariably defined by her on-screen rape.

The film further neuters the character by leaving her violent relationship with her father out of the story, making this version self-contained (no sequels have been announced) but losing the creation myth of Lisbeth’s sadistic streak. Perhaps all this wouldn’t be so vexing if the film could sustain the excitement of its action sequences, where Fincher’s film springs to life with the visceral thrills of Lisbeth’s vengeance, but instead Fincher drags us through Blomkvist’s endless, monotonous investigation of taciturn, middle-aged cyphers. The mystery itself is nothing new, hidden incest is the default plot twist of any modern mystery that wants to flaunt socially-acceptable “taboos.” The film’s failure is that it honors every detail of the mundane investigation while botching the fierce lesbian heart of the story’s main asset: Lisbeth.

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