Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011 US version): review


Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first story in Larsson's Millennium trilogy. After Larsson's untimely death in 2004 at the age of 50, Tattoo was made into two movie adaptations, one Swedish and one American. Tonight, I watched the American version, directed by David Fincher ("Fight Club," "Se7en") and starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara (in a breakout performance), Stellan Skarsgård, and Christopher Plummer, among others. I noticed two faces from "Game of Thrones": Tony Way (Ser Dontos in GoT) and Donald Sumpter (Maester Luwin), as well as three other faces from different productions: Goran Višnjić (whom I remember from the later years of "ER"), Julian Sands (from any number of films and TV shows—the man's been everywhere), and Yorick van Wageningen (who played plump Jost in "The Way," with Martin Sheen).

The story is a murder mystery, a carefully crafted slow-burn thriller. Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), who co-owns and runs a magazine called Millennium, has lost a libel case against powerful magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). Humiliated and drained of his finances, Blomkvist receives the unusual offer to be paid twice his original salary if he helps another rich man, Henrik Vanger (Plummer), solve a four-decade-old murder involving Vanger's troubled grand-niece Harriet. Blomkvist consents, eventually recruiting the help of maladjusted "ward of the state" Lisbeth Salander (Mara), the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo. Salander is a genius hacker with an eidetic memory; she moonlights as a detective while working various odd jobs. The suspense builds as Blomkvist and Salander plunge ever deeper into the eccentric and prickly Vanger family's dark secrets.

I think director Fincher did a fine job with pacing and atmospherics, and the actors all hit their marks. It was amusing to watch Daniel Craig clumsily scratching away at a mystery that would ultimately prove too convoluted and dangerous for him; James Bond would have known how to go about such an investigation with flinty competence. Mara, whom I don't know, but whose sister Kate I saw in the "The Martian" (reviewed here), somehow managed to imbue her weird and wild character with an alchemical brew of near-autistic levels of social gracelessness, forlornness, keen intellect, and a sort of slinky, skinny-girl sexiness despite her facial piercings and other poor stylistic choices.

I did, however, have two major complaints about the character of Lisbeth Salander and her relationship with Mikael Blomkvist—a relationship that rapidly turns sexual. First, Salander is shown being forced to perform oral sex on her state guardian (van Wageningen), who subsequently ties her up and brutally rapes her. These scenes were hard to watch; Fincher did great work at conveying the trauma of Salander's sexual violation. (Her revenge against her rapist is both terrible and satisfying.) But very soon after—implausibly soon, in my view—Salander tempts Blomkvist, whom she genuinely likes, into bed. Maybe I know nothing about female psychology, but I find it hard to believe a young woman just coming out of a brutal, nasty rape experience would be willing to turn around and jump in the sack with a man she knows only superficially.* Something is very wrong, here.

Second, at the end of the movie, with the mystery now solved and with Salander having told Blomkvist how much she enjoys working with him, she goes to a tailor and has a leather jacket made for Blomkvist. She then rides her motorcycle over to Blomkvist's residence, but before she can present her gift to him, she sees him walking outside his building with Erika Berger (Robin Wright), Blomkvist's co-owner, editor-in-chief, and lover (Berger is married—ahem). Saddened and angered, Salander tosses her gift in the garbage and drives off. This, too, struck me as implausible: Salander had actually run a hyper-detailed background check on Blomkvist before Blomkvist became involved with the cantankerous Vanger family; she knew his most intimate secrets, so how could she not have known about him and Erika? Did I miss something? This made no sense to me, and it came close to ruining the film.

To be clear, I like the character of Lisbeth Salander. She's a strung-out, female version of Matt Damon's Will Hunting from "Good Will Hunting"—a troubled-but-capable genius with a kind yet complicated heart, trying her best to stay sane and stay afloat. As characters go, she's fascinating, but with the two implausibilities mentioned above, I can like her only so much. The movie, meanwhile, was quite watchable; there were some truly suspenseful moments despite the long, long running time (158 minutes!). I only wish Lisbeth's character made more sense, and now I wonder whether Stieg Larsson made the same mistakes with her in his novels. I'd like to think that these flaws come from the screenwriters, not from Larsson.

*Come to think of it, this is, in fact, the same problem—again involving a character played by Daniel Craig—that occurred in "Skyfall," when Bond makes sweet love to Sévérine, who had spent years as a sexual plaything.


TheBigHenry said...


"I only wish Lisbeth's character made more sense, ..."

There are not many men in this world who have not had similar thoughts about women they have known. I think it was God's little practical joke that He played on Adam via Eve's X-chromosomes :)

Nathan B. said...

Hey, Kevin! I watched "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" on Netflix some years ago. It was an incredibly powerful movie, and it was so good that I then read the book--and the two after (and the one by another writer after them!). I can't remember exactly what happened between Salander and Blomkvist, but I believe they did have a sexual relationship. I think your point is fair, though, and I had the same thought that you did. But I seem to recall that I was more troubled by how all that happened in the movie, as opposed to the book.

That said, I think the novels themselves work really well--better than the movie, even. The first chapter of the first book is really boring--stick with it--but then things take off and before you know it, you can't put the book down--and once you finish one book, you begin the next and you read it straight through until *it's* done--at which point you just have to finish the trilogy! At least, that's how it was with me.

You probably know that the Swedish title of the first book was something related to violence men use against women. Throughout all three books, Larsson portrays a massive amount of violence, creepy and horrible, against women. While it was wonderful to see strong women react and overcome these situations (e.g. Salander's revenge on Bjurmann was awesome!), sometimes I wondered if Larsson hadn't been too gratuitous in his descriptions--especially when they didn't seem to have too much to do with the main plot (as in a subplot in a later novel). The Bjurmann sexual assault scenes--both of them--were really hard for me to watch, and even to read. They were troubling.

I hate to quote Jesus, but of another matter he said "by their fruits you shall know them." I found that the violence perpetrated by loser males against women in Larsson's writings prompted me to think a lot more about what is now conveniently-termed rape culture. I started to be more sensitive to the existence of patterns, structural patterns, of male abuse of women in even in our modern, western societies.

"Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" is basically a murder mystery--but a very good one. The next two books blur the line between geopolitical spy novels and courtroom dramas. The way Larsson moved from one genre to another is absolutely amazing. I heartily recommend you read all three books! That's not to say that they aren't flawed, but they are eminently readable and very thought-provoking.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the insights and the recommendations.


It does feel like a big cosmic joke, sometimes, doesn't it.

TheBigHenry said...


We have all heard the jokes about "what do women want". But the older I get the more I am convinced that what women want is something men are incapable of giving them -- to be understood. Aside from our obvious differences, I believe the genders' concepts of "what makes sense" are fundamentally different. And that's no joke. But perhaps it is the proverbial spice of life.

Kevin Kim said...


Sounds like a plausible theory to me.

Then again, there's the cruel notion of femininity espoused by Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good As It Gets": when asked how he's able to "write women so well," his character replies, "I think of a man... and I take away reason and accountability."

TheBigHenry said...

Indeed, Kevin. That is one of my all-time favorite movie quips. But I now think that Jack's character "writes women well" because he reflects women's frustration with men's inability to understand them.