Stieg Larsson’s manuscript of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. Clearly the reader or viewer of this story is meant to see the way punky hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in the U.S. movie) is violated by her social worker Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) as part of a pattern, an echo of the way a serial killer has been horribly raping and murdering prostitutes in Sweden for decades. The unconscious sense of male entitlement that drives Bjurman to blithely rape Lisbeth is grotesquely amplified in the actions of the serial killer, who (we eventually learn) occupies an even more socially privileged position than Bjurman.
Lisbeth is Larsson’s heroine because after being raped, she wreaks a baroque revenge on her exploiter. She comes back to his apartment, tases him and pulls out a huge silver dildo to rape him in turn. (As I watched the David Fincher movie adaptation, I couldn’t help marveling that this scene takes place in a $90 million, holiday/awards-season blockbuster. What a peculiar juncture we’ve come to in popular culture.) For good measure, Lisbeth tattoos “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on Bjurman’s chest, her amateur status with the needle ensuring that the procedure is hideously painful.
In the grip of a rage that feels both cold and hot, Lisbeth comes off as a menacing silent-movie superheroine. The viewer is never conscious of a petite actress trying to act tough, which would have instantly derailed the scene; instead it suddenly seems quite possible that Lisbeth is mentally unhinged. The ghoulish face paint she’s applied, making herself look like a creature of pure id, certainly furthers that impression.
I want to be down with Stieg Larsson’s anti-misogyny broadside. The problem for me is that Bjurman is such a crude cartoon of Oppressive Patriarchy. We squirm through the horror of Lisbeth getting raped, and then a few minutes later we get the instant catharsis of her revenge. I wondered if this wasn’t too obvious, or too easy — an odd thing to ask about such disturbing material, I know. But Bjurman is such an appalling, unmistakable villain that no one watching the movie is going to feel implicated in his actions, or feel anything but morally superior to him.
Stock villains are a conspicuous weakness of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, through no fault of the actors who portray them. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate what happened to Harriet Vanger, a girl who disappeared decades ago; we come to learn that contrary to your outmoded stereotypes about Sweden as a benign welfare-state paradise, the place is actually lorded over by sinister fascist industrialists. Blomkvist eventually hooks up, in every sense, with ace researcher Lisbeth, and together they find out what happened to Harriet 40 years ago, as well as who’s behind the murder of all those prostitutes.
Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s unlikely partnership is entertaining to watch, thanks to some tersely funny exchanges penned by Steven Zallian, injecting some much-needed levity into what could be a relentlessly dour fictional world, and thanks to the actors. Mara makes everything Lisbeth does interesting, and as the dogged journalist Mikael, Craig makes the viewer forget all about not just James Bond but about Craig’s status as a movie star, period. If he had tried to play ‘intense’ or ‘charismatic,’ the balance of Mikael’s scenes with Lisbeth would be completely off.
The movie is exceptionally patient in building up Mikael and Lisbeth’s back stories, and it never lacks for sinister atmosphere. How could it, given the wintry, isolated locations, David Fincher behind the camera, and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross? That score finds a hundred ways to render dread and alienation into something icily gorgeous, and gives voice to the state of Lisbeth’s soul more than any dialogue could.
But all of the formidable filmmaking craft on display can’t disguise what turns to be a routine serial killer story in the end. At 158 minutes long, and with a murder investigation that threatens to sink under its own exposition, this is some pretty ponderous pulp fiction. Which is to say, it fails as pulp.
A viewer who isn’t terribly invested in the “Harriet fucking Vanger” investigation (as Lisbeth puts it) and its ho-hum rich sickie revelations — post James Ellroy, it’s hard to be shocked by any of this stuff — is free to bask in the film’s splendidly chilly aesthetics, and to note how skillfully Fincher & Co. plow through heaps of exposition. But Lisbeth Salander is a memorable 21st-century creation, while the Harriet Vanger storyline is old school, and not necessarily in a good way. A critic inclined to be especially cranky could fault the movie for appropriating the trappings of radical subcultures to put a hip gloss on a conventional genre tale.
No doubt tens of millions of Stieg Larsson readers would beg to disagree with my reservations. Also, it occurs to me that now that this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is out on DVD, teenage girls who might not have seen an R-rated, “feel-bad movie of the season” in theatres will discover the character of Lisbeth for themselves. I can imagine a girl having a bad day might take heart from Lisbeth’s revenge against her tormentors, and I’m not sure I’d want to deny her that satisfaction.