Though he wrote one of the more harrowing rape scenes in popular fiction, Stieg Larsson clearly had more on his mind than sensationalism. It’s a little jarring to learn, for instance, that the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates unambiguously from the Swedish as Men Who Hate Women. It’s a confrontational (and, you’d think, curiously uncommercial) phrase, but it’s a clear signal of the seriousness of Larsson’s intent. Violence against women is neither titillating or simply a convenient fear factor to work some urgency and shock value into a story that’s primarily about Swedish industry, Nazis, 40-year-old crimes, and who gives a shit. (It does serve that function, of course.) In this book, and in the two that followed it, Larsson means to indict his own nation for its attitudes toward women.
As Time magazine noted in a story published last December, Sweden has a rape problem. According to that story, the number of cases of rape recorded in Sweden is roughly twice that of the U.S. and the U.K. on a per capita basis, and the conviction rate is dismal. The standard apologia for this claims that, because of a more sexually open society, Swedish women are more likely to report rapes. Well, maybe. But those figures are pretty stark, and Larsson sketches a picture of a country where corrupt politics, racism, and deeply ingrained sexism and sadism have all coalesced into a poisonous cloud that befouls the social welfare system and makes easy pickings of the disadvantaged. Larsson was an activist and a journalist investigating the Swedish right wing for years; he is said to have spent part of 1977 in Eritrea, training female Marxist guerrillas to use grenade launchers. I assume his novels reflect sincerely held beliefs about the world around him, the insidious dangers of latent fascism, and the institutionalized threats faced by Swedish women in their everyday lives.
Don’t get me wrong. The book is riveting, once you get far into it, but I make no claims for its status as literature. Larsson’s mystery is largely pedestrian, his dialogue (at least as translated) is often ham-handed, and his choice protagonist, sexually irresistible crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, smacks of either self-regard or wish-fulfillment. Still, Larsson was certainly onto something. The central mystery about the disappearance of young Harriet from isolated Hedeby Island, occupied by the Vanger family, requires a plunge into a (barely?) fictional post-World-War-II industrial history where racism, rank sexism, and a weird, insincere kind of religious fundamentalism coalesce into poison. That’s the meat of the story, and a distraction from the candy — any scene involving Lisbeth Salander, the bluntly antisocial hacker who is Larsson’s genius creation. Salander’s story, which alternates with Blomkvist’s until the two of them begin working together on the murder investigation, is essentially a rape-revenge narrative writ large. In this book, she avenges herself upon a government-appointed guardian who exploits her sexually, but as the trilogy progresses, she eventually brings down a chunk of the Swedish government that was complicit in her suffering. That’s primal stuff. But Larsson clearly identifies most directly with Blomkvist, and there’s a distance between him and Salander that gives her a bit of mystery, too — there’s room for readers and viewers to project new details into her feelings and reactions. (It’s actually jarring when the sensitive old dude writing the story tries to dig too deeply into her motivations; in the second book, she gets a boob job, and Larsson calls it “the best gift she had ever given herself.” I guess I could swallow an argument that body modification is one road to empowerment, but I still chose to mentally scratch those lines off the page.)
As I was reading, I would find myself tearing through really satisfying scenes and thinking, “Christ, this would make a terrific movie.” I had just seen Taken, so I imagined Liam Neeson in the role of Blomkvist and, for some reason, a punked-out Ellen Page as Salander. I wasn’t convinced those two were the best choices for those roles, but I knew damned well who I wanted to direct — David Fincher, of course. It seemed hard to imagine another Hollywood studio filmmaker who could do it, given the material’s demand for both coldness and melodramatic flair, not to mention its cool fascination with the banality of evil. Speaking of banality, the Swedes’ film of the book is about as stylish as a pair of Dockers and as stirring as a PowerPoint presentation. It kills me that so many smart people defend that rote adaptation, and I’ve been aching to see what kind of spin Fincher would put on the material.
As it turns out, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, largely, just The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher, screenwriter Stephen Zaillian, and the crackerjack editorial team of Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter have shaped the material mostly by eliding the elements that aren’t absolutely crucial to story and character, and also by accelerating the rate of exposition, packing each second of film as densely as possible with story information. When the first trailer for Dragon Tattoo was released over the summer, it caused a sensation, and inspired more than a few parodies. It felt like a high-octane gimmick — dozens of shots from the film that suggested menace, tension, and kinetic action were sliced into ribbons and pieced together into a montage of quick-cut images set to the pulsing beat of Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song.” The cynical reaction was that, gee, you could cut together scenes from just about any movie at that cadence and with that music and make it look like the feel-bad hit of the Christmas season. (I tried it with Persona, and it worked pretty nicely.) As it turns out, it’s not a gimmick — the finished film has the same impatient drive. It seems to be assembled from shots that are cut short at both head and tail, the better to isolate the nugget of information that each one imparts before moving on impatiently, ineluctably, to the next. The narrative strategy seems straightforward by Fincher’s standards, but then again it’s hard to tell. I suspect the home of the Vanger patriarch — it’s located at the end of a long, straight road, its entrance flanked by storybook trees — is a CG creation. Fincher is our best visual-effects filmmaker — he gravitated early and often to digital cinematography not because he admires the flat, largely grainless, images captured by cameras like the Viper and the high-resolution Red Epic, but because of the opportunity they afford to cleanly integrate digital effects, hiding them in plain sight.
I had been hoping Fincher would tackle the novel more aggressively, working with Zaillian to figure out ways to strip the story down closer to its mean core. That would be a difficult trick, partly because the novel is bottom-heavy with backstory, and partly because it’s driven by dual storylines — Blomkvist’s role in what amounts to a locked-room whodunit battles for screen time with Salander’s life story, a mean struggle against exploitation and disenfranchisement highlighted by victories both stirring and sick-making. It’s the whodunit that Larsson plotted the most painstakingly, but that’s not what works. Fincher throws up his hands and hides that story’s resolution in plain sight. (The film suffers from Conspicuously Awesome Supporting Actor Syndrome.) Only the investigation matters, especially when Salander finally arrives on the scene. In the seething, discordant character of Lisbeth Salander, left to rot and more by a system designed to protect her, Larsson’s material finds its most forceful voice, and in the presence of an awkward, focused and fierce Rooney Mara, Fincher’s film finds solid footing. I’m sure I will watch this movie several more times, and while I appreciate Fincher’s level of craft I’m most fond of the way Mara holds the screen. Blomkvist tells her, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,” and you see her eyes open a little wider, her posture straighten by a centimeter or two. Blomkvist is at the end of his rope, but Salander is just getting started.
Blomkvist isn’t even aware at this point of Salander’s other storyline, which involves her ironclad and especially punitive retaliation against a rapist. As queasily appropriate acts of vengeance go, this one is highly satisfactory. In Fincher’s hands, it feels like a threat — there’s a moment where Mara drives her point home with a forceful and gratuitous kick in the ass that’s all cathartic ferocity, an expression of incoherent rage at a status quo that gives properly pedigreed white men an obscene degree of leverage against the rest of the world. You get the sense Blomkvist and Salander might march with Occupy Sweden protesters and, in its way, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is another movie about the 99 percent. There’s no question the tactic is lurid, appealing to audiences’ baser instincts on a visceral level. But a film doesn’t have to be especially high-minded to be political. Fincher has always been drawn to subversion. Remember the glee Alien3 took in dismantling the cozy family unit James Cameron set up for Ripley in Aliens, the pranksterish enthusiasm he displayed for anti-consumerist terrorism in Fight Club, or his fascination with the casually sexist chuckleheads who built Facebook. Rape revenge is a grindhouse trope, and Fincher obviously delights in unleashing it on mainstream audiences. But it’s also one element in a disturbing tapestry, and the fantasy element of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo — women and men both identify with Salander partly because they like to imagine themselves having the capacity to respond to an extreme violation with superhuman toughness of body and mind — doesn’t overwhelm its reflection of what Larsson saw happening in the world outside his writing room.
The breakthrough in Blomkvist’s inquiry comes when he realizes — thanks to an off-hand comment by his daughter, off to study at Bible school — that he’s looking for a methodical serial killer and sexual sadist, not just some family member who buried poor Harriet Vanger in a shallow hole outside Hedestadt. Blomkvist gets the big picture, but it’s Salander who pulls the individual elements into focus, diving into online records and prising out the brutish and short stories of dead women from across Sweden. The circumstances of their deaths are unremittingly grisly. There are burnings, decapitations, and violations. Salander recites the details with clinical detachment, and images of the corpses flick across her laptop, the screen inside the movie’s frame, in a Cover Flow sequence of debasement. They flick by so quickly that only the broadest details of their contents can be parsed, but their presence gives the film a mournful and unpleasant undercurrent.
What the film’s catalog of atrocities reminded me of, in those dark moments, is the long, extraordinarily difficult passage of Roberto Bolano’s mammoth 2666 in which the author describes, in such merciless detail as to deaden the senses, dozens of routine murders of young, poor women and girls that plague the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez (called Santa Teresa in the book) as the police work, ineffectually and unsuccessfully, to stanch the flow of blood. Bolano’s novel, mysterious and distended, had the ominous feel of prophecy about it, as if each death it chronicled was the physical trace of a missive from hell. Though Larsson’s novel featured epigraphs asserting statistics related to the frequency of violence directed toward Swedish women, the book’s grimmest bits appeared in the quite conventional context of a procedural thriller, like an episode of CSI: Special Victims Unit with vaguely occult overtones. There’s something more sinister about their intense, concentrated presentation in Fincher’s film. They loom on screen as iconic representations of suffering, accompanied by an often droning, percussive and machine-like score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that flirts with atonality. It’s chilling in a way that reminds you of the cold world outside.