The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This review contains spoilers throughout, so unless you definitely want my opinion beforehand, read this review only after you’ve seen the movie. Especially if you’re interested in why I disagree with the internet buzz that this film should be canonized in Feminist Film heaven. It should not.

This English-language version of Stieg Larsson’s mega-successful novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is true to the novel and except for its problematic last scenes, is almost as good as the Swedish-language film version that preceded it.

The new Tattoo was directed by David Fincher, who is most well-known for last year’s Oscar-winning film, The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook. But it’s one of his previous films, not seen by many people, that shows why Fincher was particularly suited to tackle Tattoo’s American remake.. Zodiac (2007), about the futile search for San Francisco’s serial killer in the 1970s, is one of the creepiest, most intense, most psychologically squirmy films I’ve ever seen–in other words, an excellent precursor to Tattoo.

Many people ask–why remake Tattoo in English when the Swedish version was a big hit? Movie industry wisdom declares that–get this–a lot of Americans don’t like subtitles, especially men. Columbia Pictures wanted this violent and sexually explicit film to bring in men, thus the remake. The Tattoo story is intriguing enough to sit through two versions and play “compare and contrast,” so if you liked the Swedish version, you can be assured you’ll enjoy the remake.

The next question becomes–which film is better, the original or the remake? For me, both films, based on a story so compelling that you’d have to be an idiot to ruin it, were, for the most part, nearly equal in narrative power and technical skill. In addition, the hardest job in a remake–creating lead characters that are as iconic as they were in the fist outing, was accomplished.

Relative unknown American actress Rooney Mara, as Tattoo‘s computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, was a thoroughly believable psychologically warped, punk-pierced, black-leathered, brilliantly nasty piece of work. And British actor Daniel Craig, one of my favorite hunk fantasies ever since his emergence from the ocean waves as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale (another remake), was just as believable as Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist who also happens to be a good man. The original title of the novel was Men Who Hate Women, so being a normal, nice guy in this film is no mean task.

Both films rest heavy under forbidding winter skies and the brooding personalities of a sun-deprived country. In both films, the mystery is revealed in attention-grabbing detail, step by gory step, updating vague old clues with digital wizardry. Both cover the same horrendous subject matter–a serial killer of young women who preys on them from the highest echelon of Swedish society. And both are sexually graphic, not gratuitously so, because the rapes are crucial to the story, but explicit enough to make most people uncomfortable.

The Swedish version was flawless, a fantastic mystery thriller with a wonderful cast of characters and a terrific, surprising, and satisfying ending. The American version expanded the personal relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael, which gave both of them much more depth and empathy. Shortly before the film ended, I was convinced that I would judge both versions to be equally good. Alas, by the time the American film actually did end, its last scenes turned out to be weak and unsatisfying.

The Tattoo story takes place in modern-day Sweden, where Viking derring-do still inspires the young, and the malevolent legacy of Nazi collaboration hasn’t completely died out. By train, car, and motorcycle, Swedes crisscross the snowy landscape, rarely smiling and never engaging in small talk.

At his isolated island compound, an aging patriarch, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), opens his birthday mail to find what he dreaded–a package with no return address that contains an exotic pressed plant in a frame. Sadly, he puts it in a locked room where it joins a bizarre wall of similar prints. Vanger is convinced the pictures have been sent to him by the murderer of his beloved niece, Harriet, who disappeared without a trace 40 years ago when she was 16.

A world away from Vanger’s island, city journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just had his career ruined by a guilty verdict in a libel suit brought against him by a powerful industrialist. The staff at his magazine, particularly his courageous colleague and lover Erika (the always wonderful Robin Wright), are devastated by the court’s decision. Mikael has a few months before he must report to his cell.

In another part of town, hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) presents her obsessively detailed report to the client, Henrik Vanger’s attorney. The subject was Mikael Blomkvist and the information could only have been found by hacking into his personal computer and bank accounts, breaking innumerable privacy laws. Under protest, Lisbeth reveals what is between the lines of her report–Blomkvist is, in fact, just what he appears to be–an honest reporter. The court is sending an innocent man to jail.

Henrik Vanger compels Mikael to see him and makes an offer he can’t refuse. In exchange for a great deal of money, he wants Mikael to stay in a cabin on the island and spend his remaining months of freedom investigating the disappearance of his niece.

Mikael revisits the ancient clues–the blurred photographs, the inconclusive police reports, the useless interviews with people who are now deceased. He finds Harriet’s journal in which she has written down initials with curious numbers after them–but he has no idea what the notations mean. Mikael feels the secret to Harriet’s disappearance lies within the vicious Vanger clan that lives on the island, but he can make no progress on the case.

Meanwhile Lisbeth is having some problems….

Because as a child she tried to burn her father alive, 24-year-old Lisbeth must have a court-appointed guardian to manage her life. She is assigned a new guardian who turns out to be a monster (Yorick van Wageningen). When Lisbeth visits him to get her expense check, he forces her to perform oral sex on him. The second time she has to see him, he brutally beats and rapes her. (Please notice the rating of this film, it’s not an understatement.) Unbeknownst to the guardian, Lisbeth, an expert in surveillance, has recorded the whole attack on a camera hidden in her purse.

The next time she sees him, she wreaks revenge, in a way we’ve rarely seen on screen (I’ve don’t know of any similar scene). She tazers the man, ties him up, sodomizes him and makes him watch the video of what he did to her. As the final coup, she tattoos his chest with a message he’ll never be able to erase and leaves him a bloody, whining mess.

Lisbeth has done to this low-life creep what millions of women each year wish they could do to a man who has assaulted them. Wreaking this kind of repulsive revenge–and believe me, it was horrible–is not the act of a feminist heroine. It’s a revenge fantasy in a movie. After we witness the rape Lisbeth endured, and the rape she performed, instead of calling her a feminist heroine, we should want to take a shower for the simpatico she inspired in us.

Back to the film and more complaints about so-called “feminist” kudos…

When Mikael’s daughter visits him, she tells him the curious numbers in Harriet’s journal refer to phrases in Leviticus. In the Swedish version of the film, this major revelation was made by Lisbeth, and having it revealed in this version by the daughter (which is what happened in the book, I’m told) was a distracting subplot.

Fifty-eight minutes into the film, it’s time for Lisbeth and Mikael to actually meet. Mikael tracks down Lisbeth and demands that she come to the island and help him solve the crime he’s working on, since her research on him was totally illegal. Already knowing he is a trustworthy man, she agrees. Together, this odd couple traces the horrifying clues that lead them to the discovery of a serial killer who has been murdering young Jewish women for decades.

Who is the bad guy they’re looking for? Well, in this version, unlike the Swedish version which presented several likely candidates, the identity of the bad guy is easy to figure out–it has to be the only other star in the movie, Stellan Skarsgard, who plays Martin Vanger, head of Vanger Industries, the unmarried, Nazi-loving brother of the missing Harriet. So the “who” is not the mystery for this film audience, it’s the “how” and “why” that keep us watching.

One night, Lisbeth pulls off her clothes and presents herself to Mikael. He’s shocked–should they really mix pleasure with business? But she wordlessly climbs on top of him and does her thing. Later when they expand beyond a one-night fling, Lisbeth is always on top. I hate to say it, but, contrary to what many other film critics are claiming, I don’t think Lisbeth’s position preference makes her a feminist heroine. It just means the guys who made this film could show more of Rooney Mara’s lithe young body while she’s on top of Daniel Craig than if she were hidden underneath him. We never get to see Daniel Craig’s bottom, I’m sorry to say. So much for equal time in the cute butt department.

One aspect of the film that is “sort of ” feminist is that in the final scenes, it’s not Lisbeth who gets tortured by Martin Vanger in his basement dungeon, but Mikael, and she’s the one who saves him. It’s like a perverse payback–all the guys in the audience who like to see women tortured in films get to cringe when the tables are turned.

In the original version of the film, Lisbeth, whom we had seen in flashbacks set fire to her father while he sat in a car, lights up Martin Vanger after he crashes his car trying to escape the island. She lets him die, coolly ignoring his pathetic screams for help. In essence the film was bookended with violence by fire. In that version when Mikael learned that Lisbeth had let Vanger die, he was terribly upset, claiming that he would have saved Vanger. Oh, sure, easy to be self-righteous after you didn’t actually end up suffocated.

So I was somewhat gratified in this American version by a significant and realistic change in Mikael’s post-torture behavior. As Lisbeth runs off to chase Martin Vanger, she asks Mikael, who is still gasping for breath, “Can I kill him?” Blomkvist manages to voice, “Yes”–in essence giving her permission to take revenge. But in this version, that revenge is curiously downplayed. Lisbeth doesn’t deliberately set Martin Vanger’s car on fire, she just walks away as he burns to death. Revenge-lite.

BIG SPOILER HERE. In both films, Mikael realizes that Harriet was never killed. In the first film, he finds her in Australia and brings her home to her uncle in an emotional reunion. In this version, however, she’s still in Sweden, working as an investment banker, using the identity of her dead sister, Anita Vanger (Joely Richardson). After Mikael recovers from his torture, he knocks on Harriet/Anita’s door and confronts her with the truth he has uncovered.

Later we see her in a long shot, giving her uncle a quick hug. No dramatic, tear-tugging reunion like there was in the Swedish version. We’ve gone through all that suffering to bring poor old Henrik together with his niece and a long shot is all we get? Very anticlimactic.

Next Harriet tells her uncle, she’s “sorry” for disappearing and sending him those prints every year on his birthday. “Sorry?” Isn’t that swell! She assumed he would have figured out the prints were from her, eerie messages confirming that she was alive. It didn’t occur to her that her yearly messages might have been driving her uncle crazy with grief?

And then I want to jump out of my seat and start yelling at the screen–in both versions of the film, Harriet never does one thing or says one word about keeping silent for four decades about the old murders her father and brother committed. Did she never think if her brother had already helped her father kill young women, that he would do it by himself when his father died?

When she matured a bit and had been safely away from her brother, did Harriet never see media reports about missing women? Did she never think that maybe she should reveal what she knew–and perhaps prevent the murder of another woman? No, this cool rich blonde stays silent, hiding her head like an ostrich in the snow, allowing other women to die. A feminist film? I don’t think so!!!

I was horrified by the seemingly blithe dismissal of Harriet’s guilt in both versions of the film. Just as disturbing is that I haven’t read one comment in any other film review about Harriet’s complicity in the serial killer’s crimes. Sisters are clueless if we think this character deserves to end the film without any recognition of her sins by omission.

A good film, yes. Violent, thought-provoking, and uncomfortable– and very, very, very unsisterly.

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