I haven’t read the Stieg Larsson DRAGON TATTOO books, but I liked the Swedish movies. Or at least the first two. Lisbeth Salander is a cool pulpy heroine, a unique type of badass with an interesting, complex relationship with this reporter dude she’s fucking/investigating with. I enjoyed (if you can call it that) her adventures and hoped things would turn out well for her and her dragon.
At the same time I gotta admit I don’t understand the whole phenomenon. It seems like these stories are popular with the same people who love John Grisham books and Ron Howard movies, so it seems weird that the pivotal character-establishing part of the story is a graphic rape revenge tale (“a mini I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE” I think I called it in my original review) and the beloved heroine is a bisexual punk psychopath. David Fincher’s English language re-cinematization of the first book is not turning out to be a box office sensation, but watching it still puzzled me how it passes for mainstream entertainment. Not just ’cause of the brutal rape, but because of the attention span it requires. It almost feels like watching a whole season of a TV show, or a couple of movies in a row. First it’s the origin story of Lisbeth and Mikael, then it’s their first mystery (which is pretty involved and less interesting than the characters themselves), and just when you think it’s all wrapped up there’s a little mini-sode that makes you wonder if they accidentally cued up part 2 early. (One of those “multiple-endings” deals that people used to praise in James Cameron’s movies but then started complaining about in Peter Jackson’s.)
Let me put this another way. We live in a world where, in order to get the movies he wants made, Fincher has to sell out… by making a dense, almost-3-hour-long movie about a Swedish activist journalist and a sexually abused punk computer savant studying old photos and records to try to solve a 40 year old Nazi murder case in exchange for information to help fight a libel suit. And it’s not even based on a video game.
I don’t mean any of this in a negative way. I liked the movie, and like it more the more it sits with me. I’m just a little surprised that other people are expected to like it too. Interesting times we live in.
Besides everybody speaking in accented English as a metaphor for Swedish, the most obvious difference from the previous version is in the casting of the leads. The reporter is played by Daniel Craig, and even though he’s not showing off his abs or anything he can’t hide being more suave and manly than Michael Nyqvist in the other version. It’s James Bond vs. the bad guy from GHOST PROTOCOL. Big difference. But also clever casting, because you get to see that dude scared and helpless and rescued by a weird little chick. She drives the motorcycle more in this than I remember in the other one, and he has to ride bitch.
For Lisbeth they’ve got Rooney Mara, a strong young actress who heroically dumped whatsisdick in the opening of THE SOCIAL NETWORK and was squandered as Nancy in the ELM STREET remake. She’s only 6 years younger than the Swedish Girl, Noomi Rapace, but it’s a noticeable difference, and she’s much daintier. I thought it was weird in Swedish part 3 when some character said Lisbeth looked like a little girl, because I didn’t notice her being small and she looked to me like she could handle herself. They also made Mara look alot scarier and more offputting: bleached eyebrows, ever-evolving fucked up haircuts, infected-looking piercings, twiggy, asexual body. I’m not sure if Mara’s interpretation is better than Rapace’s, but it’s different. Being so short and skinny makes her look more vulnerable, and makes her sexual relationship with Mikael seem more inappropriate. And in this version he has a daughter that can’t be much younger than her.
The structure of the movie is unusual. I know they trimmed it down into movie form (because there was alot more about the libel case in the Swedish version, I’m not sure I would’ve understood it here without having seen that), but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re watching it. Lisbeth and Mikael have their own separate movies going on. They don’t seem to have any connection, and whenever something really horrifying is about to happen with Lisbeth it’ll cut away to Mikael interviewing somebody or something and you gotta hang on to find out what happens back in the other movie. It’s a long time before it finally becomes Mystery on the Island of Rich Nazi Assholes.
What’s interesting though is that while the story as a whole is punishingly long, the individual elements of it are very fast-paced. It’s the good kind of fast edits where it pops from one location to the next to quickly tell you through visuals the steps he’s going through in his investigation. You know, as soon as he turns it cuts to him at his destination, instead of showing him walking across the room, opening the door and walking through, getting into his car…
There are small things that I think made the story work a little better in the other one, like in that one he was gonna get locked up as punishment for the libel, and was doing this little mystery-solving-adventure to keep his mind off it. It’s like THE 25TH HOUR. Also I seem to remember the whole thing with the framed flowers being sent to him on his birthday being a bigger deal, it’s kind of brushed over in this one and seems kinda silly. Not that they need to add anything more into this thing, I don’t want it to be any longer, but those worked well before.
A major change that must’ve been a departure from the book to make it more cinematic: in the Swedish movie Lisbeth didn’t just do a background check on him, she was actually hired to surveil him, so before they meet she’s looking at the files on his laptop and figuring out things he hasn’t yet about the mystery. Maybe that’s why it didn’t seem like two separate movies for the first hour plus like this one did. But I sort of like the ballsiness of Fincher’s structure. It seems like they’re never gonna meet. Then when Mikael finally hires her she’s like “shit, this is easy” and pushes his detective work several chapters ahead in like 5 minutes of Googling.
Same as the Swedish version, it’s more the character of Lisbeth and her relationship with this dude and with the history of gender in standard thriller tropes that makes the movie interesting than it is the mystery itself. But that’s not to say that story is a total wash, and Fincher being Fincher he squeezes some great atmosphere and suspense out of it. To be honest I don’t have any memory of the climax in the Swedish version, but the setting of this one has stuck with me, maybe because it’s so beautifully opposite of the dilapidated holes where the evil was going on in SEVEN. (Confidential to those who have seen it: why does he have Enya recorded onto reel-to-reel? That’s how you know he’s a total sicko. Even Leatherface wouldn’t make that effort. Maybe he’d have a tape or CD but not a reel-to-reel. That’s fucked!)
Credit is also due to Fincher’s pals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their unusual score. What I like about it is how the sound effects and the music sort of bleed into each other and infect each other. When Lisbeth is undergoing horrific abuse in her parole officer or whatever’s office you can hear what sounds like a muffled vacuum. It’s like that truck driving by at the end of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, it’s a reminder that holy shit, there are people going about their usual business nearby, they got no clue. It was creeping me out but then I thought wait, maybe it’s not a vacuum, maybe it’s just the score. Then when she leaves the office you see that in fact there is somebody vacuuming in the other room, but the sound seems to merge with the music and continue in the next scene somewhere else.
Same type of thing happens in Lisbeth’s greatest moment, the early act of revenge that establishes her as being in the company of Wu-Tang Clan and other entities that Ain’t Nothin To Fuck With. If you’re familiar with the story you will remember what she does with the tattoo gun. Reznor and Ross pull the buzz of the gun into their score and it continues into the next scene. Its sound lingers just like the memory of what she did with it.
Oh shit, the SOCIAL NETWORK guy better be glad it wasn’t Lisbeth he got dumped by. She would’ve made sure he never invented Facebook.
NOTES ON AMERICAN TRANSLATION:
In this one, Henrik mentions right off that some of his relatives are Nazis. I thought that was funny because in the Swedish one it just comes up later when the guy has pictures of him in Nazi uniforms openly displayed in his house. I was so confused, trying to figure out if that was actually normal in Sweden.
I think maybe that’s why he’s not on his way to jail, too. It seems weird to an American that a dude could be locked up for libel. They must’ve thought that would confuse us.
While everybody speaks English (and many don’t fake Swedish accents), signs and headlines and stuff are in Swedish. But the rapist tattoo is in English. Does that mean she made it in English, as an artistic choice, or should we imagine it’s actually in Swedish? That seems like it would serve the intended purpose better.
I wonder if Lisbeth knows any of the hackers from THE MATRIX? And what would she do to the machines to avenge them for what they did to us?
* * *
I figure this isn’t up there with Fincher’s best movies, but I like seeing him do one like this every once in a while. Sometimes it’s a cool exercise for a highly skilled director take a break from the visionary shit and try to elevate something that could’ve been cookie cutter in somebody else’s hands. Kinda like when he did PANIC ROOM, but this is more challenging. It’s funny ’cause it’s got lots of computers like SOCIAL NETWORK, obsessive research of a serial killer like ZODIAC, even fucked up Biblically-themed murders like in SEVEN. I didn’t notice any backwards aging or prison planets, sadly.
Alot of people have talked about the crazy opening credits, which aren’t very similar to the ones in SEVEN except that they’re visually and thematically dark and kind of grab you by the hair and slam you face-first into the muck. Hello, welcome to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, fuck you. It could use a little Shirley Bassey but it’s clearly an evil version of a James Bond opening credits sequence, which is perfect. The actual James Bond is in this movie, but he’s not gonna save anybody. He’s tied up and the villain is making a speech but not because of hubris – he’s doing it because he’s only murdered women before, and he’s not sure how to do this. Meanwhile, Bond is not planning his escape – a girl is gonna rescue him.
James Bond in this movie does not seduce any women – the woman tells him when to fuck, and he goes along with it. He doesn’t have any fancy gadgets, and doesn’t know how to keep Lisbeth from breaking into the files on his laptop.
I was talking to a buddy who didn’t like the movie because he couldn’t get past the heroine getting raped. I get it, this is supposed to be entertainment, and rape is always a bummer. But I also see kind of a double standard there. In DEATH WISH 1 and 2, which most of us acknowledge as entertainment, there are horrible rapes, but it’s Kersey’s wife and daughter and etc. Afterwards we enjoy seeing him go a little mad getting savage revenge on the rapist/killers and their peers.
It’s awesome, but it’s a little paternalistic or something, isn’t it? The women get raped and killed, their old man gets to be the hero. Maybe if Lisbeth had Charles Bronson for a dad or a husband it would be different, but she’s got nobody. So she takes care of the revenge herself, and she does it quicker, more precise and more savage than Kersey, and uses it to get what she wants. She’s so good at revenge that she takes care of it halfway through the movie and has to have something else to deal with as the main plot. That’s badass.
I’ve noticed that Lisbeth Salander is not a well liked character among the internet movie people that I read, the same guys that love Hit Girl from KICKASS so much. I know they’re totally different movies, it’s not a fair comparison, but I still wonder about it. The little girl running around murdering everybody because her dad brainwashed her, that’s a fun time at the movies. But the one that kicks a dildo up her abuser’s ass? It’s not cute when she’s angry. She makes guys nervous even though we know we didn’t do anything. That reaction kinda makes me think Lisbeth is legit, not just another fetish in feminist clothing. I mean, I think she’s cool, but I don’t think she’s hot. You don’t usually get that in a female cinematic asskicker (at least the adult ones – I hope they’re not getting that from Hit Girl).
Then again, I gotta acknowledge that I am a dude, these books were written by a dude, and this movie was directed and written by dudes (adapted by Steve Zaillian of SCHINDLER’S LIST). I definitely see some male fantasy on Stieg Larsson’s part. Mikael is an investigative reporter for a magazine going after white supremacists and other abusers of power, just like Larsson was. And he gets to fuck the girl. I mean, I got a strong feeling that Larsson was enjoying some suicidegirls.com while writing these books. So if some women don’t want to consider Lisbeth a feminist icon then I get it.
But I made an argument for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’s Jennifer Hills as a legitimate feminist statement, and Lisbeth is definitely a stronger character. Just as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was supposed to be called DAY OF THE WOMAN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was called MEN WHO HATE WOMEN in Swedish. It takes place in a world stained with the after effects of past atrocities: the disappearance of Harriet that haunts Henrik to this day, the other Vangers’ past in the Nazi party, the abusive father that obviously still affects Lisbeth, what she did about him that she still answers for. Even decades ago when the murders happened they were the result of archaic attitudes, based as they were on Bible verses about witches and shit like that. The serial killer, the rapist guardian… these are men who hate women, and abuse the male-dominated system to take out their sickness on them.
Lisbeth, pummeled down by that system, made a prisoner by it, doesn’t run away. She spits on its grave, but she does more. Jennifer Hills raged back with sadistic executions of her abusers. Lisbeth would be capable of that, she certainly has the stomach for it, but she’s smarter. She gives her guardian the physical punishment she wants to give him but also systematically locks him in the way he did to her. Forces him to give her what she wants, out of fear.
And then she takes the next step… she tries to learn to have relationships with men again. But that’s a work in progress.
There’s an obvious attempt at putting some kind of real psychology into the character, but no, she’s not a realistic portrait. She’s kind of a super hero. She’s a computer genius, has a photographic memory, can kick a man’s ass, handle a weapon and hold her own in a high speed motorcycle chase. At the end she puts on a disguise and travels around the world to pull a major swindle. That’s what I like about her. She’s a James Bond for a segment of society that never got a James Bond before. Take it as a tiny bit of social progress, or just a novelty, it’s good either way.
* * *
I like this better than the Swedish version, which I also liked. Re-reading my review of the older one I remember things that were different that probly worked better. I think their sexual relationship made more sense in that version. It seemed like something she would do, even if it was a bad idea. And he’s decent enough to question it and weak enough to do it anyway. Then she fucks with his mind by pushing him away both physically and emotionally. Craig and Mara have a great chemistry. I love the moment when she tells him that she likes working with him. You’ve never seen her so happy, and you believe it. But I think maybe the relationship has more dimension in the other version.
On the other hand the way Fincher does it is cool because it takes the man to task more. The Swedish one lets Mikael be the surrogate for us dudes watching, we got to have a wild weekend fucking the crazy punk girl, but she won’t have us now, boo hoo, we go back to our old life with the other gal, secretly pining for our maniac pixie dream girl. She won’t let us in. Treats us like a dumb ho. But we understand. She’s been through alot. Oh well, it’s out of our hands now.
Fincher’s version leaves us sympathizing with Lisbeth instead, feeling screwed over by the one nice man in her life besides her speechless old man or her hairy hacker friends. She was gonna put it all on the line for this dude, show him all her cards, but just then she sees him back in his old life with his old girlfriend. Looks like she was just an indiscretion to him. A Bond girl. Fuck.
Is he another man who hates women? He seemed like a nice guy. This sucks, and it’s not the kind of thing you can avenge with a dildo and a tattoo gun.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.