Having neither read the books nor seen previous versions, I came into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with limited advance knowledge of the story, so don’t look to this review for a series fan’s estimate. And, as most readers know, my tolerance for blood and gore is extremely low, much lower than most people’s in my experience. I am reminded of that fact with director David Fincher’s taut and disturbing new film.
This is the Sweden-based story of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, Cowboys & Aliens), a discredited journalist hired by a wealthy businessman (the always meticulous Christopher Plummer) to solve the dark, familial mystery of a woman who has been missing for 40 years, and a violent young hacker named Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) who figures into the mystery. That’s the upshot, with others in the cast filling in the blanks of a convoluted and mostly engrossing tale of a family that more or less eats its own. There’s Robin Wright as Mikael’s pragmatic, married lover and magazine publisher. There’s Joely Richardson as a London relative who seems to be the only happy and sane member of the industrialist’s Christian and Nazi-dominated family. And there’s the impeccable Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor, Angels and Demons) as one of Mikael’s few allies in solving the puzzle. They are all perfectly cast and directed in this cold, eerie movie about pain.
As the title implies, the emphasis is on damage, not on healing the wounded. I have nothing against tattoos as such, and the movie’s title, taken from the novel by the late Stieg Larsson, suggests the driving purpose of the story: to shock and titillate. After all, the female lead is not a girl at all, she is a woman and the character exists to express the theme about revenge of the damaged; about the cathartic empowerment of inflicting pain on others. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is all about watching it unfold. It is an exercise in voyeurism, plain and simple, the mark of Marin County native Fincher’s career, with deliberately distorted sound and images. The plot is difficult to track and, though it’s in English, the dialogue is at times hard to understand. In spite of this, most of it comes off well, playing masterfully with the senses to achieve the desired distortion.
So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with a loud, blaring hard rock music video (the score is by Trent Reznor of the nihilist rock band Nine Inch Nails) in which people are depicted covered in thick, dripping black paint and subjected to disgusting things. It’s not a nonstop assault on one’s senses, not at all, and the dark gray look pervades the film as Craig’s journalist goes from suspect to suspect and from old photo to old photo at the rich man’s island estate trying to piece together what happened to someone named Harriet. A cat enters the frigid, musty cottage where he writes as an old man makes an exit from Lisbeth’s life and slowly, calculatingly and effectively the pieces come together. That the finished piece is all utterly preposterous, making Silence of the Lambs (this movie’s godfather in every sense), look like an episode of something on the Disney Channel, is beside the point. What happened to Harriet is horrifying, gripping and sufficiently played out all at once, even if you see it coming, which I did, though that may be because I know firsthand that what happened to Harriet happens to more people than you think.
But there is a crucial sense in which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not really about what happened to Harriet or her depraved family or Mr. Plummer’s titan of industry or Mikael and his quest to get his name and reputation back. It is primarily about the woman whose uniquely devastated background, depicted here with graphic exactness, makes her perfectly matched to solving the riddle and avenging herself and the world’s Harriets. And they, the world’s Harriets, terrorized children, as we see from Saudi Arabia and Austria to Penn State and undoubtedly a church, college or house near you, possibly your own, are everywhere. That harsh reality is what’s supposed to make the pornography here, and gratuitous scenes of oral and anal rape, pet and human degradation and sado-masochism, acceptable. For all its moralizing about Old Testament Christians, Nazis and other faith-based followers of this or that including the welfare state (and does that get a well-deserved skewering), the neatly framed trains, bridges and wintry landscapes do not mask the fact that ogling a naked woman being raped, or Daniel Craig in his underwear, is really porn for the sake of porn.
Images of an emaciated person having sex or being raped may shock or titillate, but such scenes do not advance the plot, which you may realize only after the credits roll and it dawns on you that nothing much has moved you because nothing much has mattered but the blood and sex porn and the mystery was window dressing for the peeping. I see why the story and character are involving, I get it, and there’s no denying that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has potential to dramatize that damaged people hear and see depravity that the rest of us do not in a compelling form and much of David Fincher’s work here as elsewhere (Se7en, The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is well done. But, in the words of one character on what draws us to our doom in the film’s best scene, those who go willingly into darkness may live to regret what they experience.