January 05, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Thanks so much to Bonnie Norman of A Working Title for sharing her post about this film!

Trigger warning: This movie contains scenes of violence and rape. Also, Spoiler Alert for the book and movies.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a complicated story to break down. The book the movie is derived from is 480 pages long according to Amazon and that's a lot to try to condense into a movie; I'll be making a lot of comparisons to the book. (I haven't seen the original Swedish adaptation, but you can read two different reviews here on Heroine Content: Skye's and Grace's.) On the one hand, we have Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig, a journalist recovering from a conviction of libel after botching a story against a major business tycoon published in the magazine Millenium. On the other, we have Lisbeth Salander, played by Rooney Mara, a young woman with a troubled past, a photographic memory, and a whip-smart intellect. A ward of the state since she was 12, she was declared mentally incompetent at 18 and is now under guardianship.

Lisbeth becomes involved in Mikael's story (and it really is his story) after first doing a background check on him for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) of the Vanger Corporation, in order for them to hire him for a special investigation into the long-ago disappearance of Henrik's favorite niece, Harriet Vanger. After Mikael hits a wall in his investigation he requests a research assistant, and Lisbeth is recommended. The two of them work together to uncover some long buried secrets of the Vanger family and find out what really happened to Harriet.

I did not like the opening credits of the film. The scenes of ink and women being hit and torn open into flowers was very off-puting and just icky. It had an almost James Bond feel to it, (perhaps a nod to Daniel Craig's other acting work?) but with a surreal quality that made it more nightmarish then sexy. Perhaps that was the point, but I think it set the tone for the rest of movie as women as victims being acted upon, rather than avengers meting out justice as Lisbeth has been touted. Lisbeth herself feels like an empty character. Her emotions and thoughts aren't clearly readable by the audience, so someone coming to this without having read the books won't get the same connections and background that I have. In the books it's made clear that she does not feel like a victim when bad things happen to her, and she quite rationally plots out ways to get back at those who have wronged her. Here, the thought process seems much less calculated, and I think the true sense of how Lisbeth's mind works is lost.

The much talked about rape scene with her guardian was very uncomfortable for me to watch but I think a rape scene should be uncomfortable for the audience. It isn't sexy, and it's clearly painful. We are not meant to be titillated. The fact that Lisbeth then turns the tables on her attacker is an interesting conundrum for me. I don't think rape is justified, ever, but in Lisbeth's mind, it is do unto others what has been done to you, because nobody else will ever do it for you. Nils Bjurman is a vile rapist, taking advantage of a situation where he has complete power over someone the state has deemed mentally incompetent. But I don't think it's right to condone her raping and violating him in return, even if he might have deserved retaliation of some kind. If we follow "An eye for an eye" we all end up blind. (They do not flash back to either scene even once in the film, it's one and done for both scenes.)

What else can I say about Lisbeth? If you haven't seen the official movie poster for the U.S. release, it's above. The poster I think misrepresents how Lisbeth is portrayed in the film, sort of a bait and switch. I don't think at any time Lisbeth comes off as the sexy leading lady. She seems much more like the bizarre eclectic goth girl, exotic and strange and possibly to be pitied. I don't think they did enough to imbue her with the bad-assness that is present in the books or seems to have been present in the Swedish version. Also, her blonde eyebrows against the black hair really bother me, and make her seem almost alien at times. Her character isn't as relatable or heroic as I'd hoped for, and that's disappointing to me.

The other female characters in this movie are so incidental to Mikael, even though it is full of them. The development of even the main focus of the mystery, Harriet, is barely touched on. And I have a serious problem with the resolution of her story. After finding out that Harriet's father and brother are serial rapists, torturers, and murderers, Mikael and Lisbeth realize that Harriet is in fact alive, and they track her down and confront her, eventually reuniting her with her uncle Henrik. In the books, Harriet escapes the cycle of incest and rape with the help of her cousin Anita, fleeing from the family island and eventually emigrating to Australia, where she falls in love with and marries a man who makes her very happy, has children with her, and makes her a full partner in his very successful ranching business.

Book-Harriet is shown to be capable, healed, and happy, although she still feels the pain and emotional scars from her childhood. The U.S. movie shows Harriet alone and in hiding, leading a lonely life that seems almost cold. It seems to imply that the rape and abuse she suffered has tainted her life forever and she will never be the woman she could be. I prefer the book version of Harriet myself. I'm not sure why they made the change; perhaps they thought the addition of another foreign country would confuse the story even more for an American audience? I don't know how the Swedish film portrayed her, but I wish the U.S. version had stuck closer to the print version.

Two other female characters that received short shrift were Lisbeth's sometime lover, Miriam Wu (Elodie Yung), and Mikael's lover and editor of Millenium, Erika Berger (Robin Wright). Miriam plays a larger role later in the trilogy, but here she had one line and no connection was made between her and Lisbeth other than as a one night stand, unfortunately. She's also the only character of color, but considering Sweden has a 95% homogenous population that isn't really surprising. Elodie Yung is of French and Cambodian descent, while Miriam is I believe half Swedish and half Chinese.

Erika Berger is barely touched on at all, which is extremely unfortunate. She's a very competent and intelligent character, and is seen as much more capable than the sometimes flaky Mikael to actually handle the serious business of running an investigative magazine. It's also made to seem as though she and Mikael are carrying on a clandestine affair when she says she'll call her husband to tell him she's not coming home tonight, and that she has an unhappy marriage, as she makes a reference (after waking up to find Mikael not in bed) to usually only waking up in a cold bed at home. I once again must point out the book, where her husband is fully aware and approving of their relationship and Erika is seen as a woman with exceptional sexual appetite that she unashamedly satisfies with the love and support of her husband. I think perhaps the movie execs felt that U.S. audiences wouldn't be able to handle an open and successful and happy marriage.

Finally, one plot hole that seems glaring to me is the resolution of the case against Martin Vanger. He openly admits that he held women captive in his basement torture chamber and eventually killed them. The movie glosses over this fact after his explosive death, caused in part by Lisbeth after a brief chase scene. In the book, Mikael is determined to reveal the heinous crimes Martin and his father committed, but is convinced to remain silent by Henrik, on the grounds that it won't solve anything and will in fact harm Harriet. Against his own moral compass, Mikael agrees, but Lisbeth insists that the Vanger Corp make restitution to every woman's family they can track down, via the extensive records and videos Martin kept as sadistic mementos. The movie seems to completely forget about these women the minute the bad guy is dead, and that does them a disservice, leaving their stories unresolved and implying that they (and their families) don't matter now that they've been avenged. The effects of a crime don't disappear once the perpetrator is gone.

To recap: Even though the movie revolves around the abuse and eventual retaliation of women, the female characters are sidelined for the most part, with barely any lines or screen time. Lisbeth is an unsympathetic character whose original bad-assness is toned down or missing all-together. She's smart yes, but she's also weird and a little sad. Overall, I feel like this movie was so close, but just didn't deliver the same kind of umph that the book or Swedish adaptation are known for.



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