{film} the girl with the dragon tattoo (2011)


It was inevitable that I would see David Fincher’s 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I found the Niels Arden Oplev version to be fantastic, even as I acknowledged the idea that I would never see it again. It is just too explicit for my tender sensibilities. I believed Noomi Rapace to be the end-all Lisbeth Salander, and I wasn’t convinced by the re-casting of Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist either. However, I am pretty convinced about Fincher as a director. Add that he had cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and music-men Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on board, I could actually get excited. It was a delicate balance going in, to say the least. Would the production crew counter-weigh the eyebrow-less Rooney Mara (who has proving rather dramatically ever since that she does in fact have eyebrows)? What would they do about those rape scenes? And doesn’t it feel too soon for another version with the Swedish one finding success in the U.S. market?

The simple synopsis of the film (via IMDb): “Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for forty years by Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker.”

My response–at some length–you can skip the last 2-3 paragraphs if you just want to know whether you should see it or not–links to pages/reviews at bottom–otherwise…

It did feel too soon to film another The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But everyone is reading the books, so really, when better? This works especially well in that Fincher does follow more closely to the book. Sean read it recently, so he verified when, if ever, it derailed. It derailed rather infrequently. For one, Salander and Blomkvist do not team up as early as the 2009 film would show, and Fincher spends more time in the lives of each of the protagonists before they begin to work together. This new version relies less on inferences and is more about the characters. The earlier version is overwhelmingly about the mystery of Harriet. Its pacing is much more intense. Fincher’s film matches its intensity in the “music video” opening credits and little elsewhere. Cinematically, he relies on a different kind of psychological manipulation. Those familiar with his work can guess how, because The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is overwhelmingly Fincher-esque; his color-tints, angles, precise dialog via actor and camera-work, blocking, his oblique foci.

I was curious how Fincher would handle the overt sexual violence in the story. He has worked with both physically and psychologically violent topics before: Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002), Zodiac (2007), and even Social Network (2010) if you think about it. As I mentioned the earlier version had repulsed me, each rape was physically and psychologically painful for me to watch (and yes, what happens in the “Guardian’s” office is rape). There was concern about the fetishization in the critic community, which is always a concern with portraying any sexual body or act for audiences. This was not my personal issue with the first, but I could see where they were coming from.  I was concerned for the second, and it measures much the same. I do not want to put myself through timing each of the sequences, but I believe Fincher spent less time. It was certainly less graphic, but it did return to it—in different ways. In these ways we were able to see Lisbeth continually assert her power over her rapist time and again, effectively recovering her as a survivor.

Much of the story is in the progression of Lisbeth from a victimized state to an empowered one (though not ever “healed”). We witness the betrayal by society (as indicative of her whole existence up to this point) and her aggressively carving a space for herself in it; which inevitably meant rule breaking. What this film (and the other) does is definitely applaud the subversive content of our society. Who else is as victimized or as capable of fighting back?

The film (and book) is inescapably about the violence women suffer and the men who perpetrate it. They take all forms, the men and the women. At the center you have irrepressible Lisbeth Salandar, who is violated all over the place (socially, economically, sexually) and Blomqvist who would redeem man’s potential, who has the ability to soothe the violation (socially, economically, sexually). Both Mara and Craig are well-cast physically for the roles; she—young, small and fragile, and pretty-enough; he—older, whip-cord strong and handsome. Both performed well also; although I did not know what to do with Craig’s roving accent and his supposed vulnerability there near the end. Mara was good, and did surprise me in how much of a run for her money she gave Noomi Rapace’s performance. Just the same, the two, and Fincher lacked the edge Oplev’s film had. Ebert sums it up nicely:

Fincher is certainly a more assured director than Niels Arden Oplev, who did the 2009 Swedish film. Yet his assurance isn’t always a plus. The earlier film had a certain earnest directness that seemed to raise the stakes. Emotions were closer to the surface. Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace both create convincing Salanders, but Rapace seems much more uneasy in her skin, more threatened. As the male lead Mikael Blomkvist, Michael Nyqvist seemed less confident, more threatened. In this film, Daniel Craig brings along the confidence of James Bond. How could he not? He looks to comfortable in danger.

In Fincher’s version, it becomes harder to believe Salander was ever a victim as she is frighteningly capable, especially in wreaking vengeance. As a character she is cool and calculating, but she is also desiring of physical contact and loving relationships. She is an incredible character and a challenge for the actress to maintain such bold extremes (traditionally) in a singular character that has to undergo transition and not ever be seen as psychotic. We do not see hysterical females in this film. This is incredibly important. At no point should we see women as weak or deserving of violence (sexual or otherwise) or unreliable narrators of their own stories. Both films pull this off.

As to Craig having the difficulty of overcoming his Bond-persona…  In a way, his cultural luggage does carry a delicious tension, an easy and necessary confusion. Why doesn’t he disarm the villain near the end? Why doesn’t he easily triumph over the villain or at least physically confront him and punch him in the face, near the beginning? Because even though he should be capable and strong and incredibly-masculine (as Craig is), he too is limited by the men who hate women*. It also separates him from those in power. Even the most financially and socially powerful man that we can like is made vulnerable by age and physical vulnerabilities—to say nothing of his emotional “weaknesses;” was it not observed that he’d lost his economic prowess after Harriet disappears?  He cared about this girl who was in his charge and when he lost her, he felt guilty, and subsequently abandoned aggressive acquisition. It is evident that the man didn’t need to acquire more, so the point is easily made. With the violence against women, there is a discussion of greed and economics in the film.

It is worth watching how Blomqvist does not initiate sexual relationships with the women, to include his lover/editor and Lisbeth. His touch is tentative. He is very comfortable in the female space (except with his daughter, which is—I’m not sure yet). He maintains greater distances visually with men. Sean informed me that the editor girl-friend Erika Berger (played by Robin Wright (no longer Penn)) is/was a dominatrix in the books, and that she is loyal to both her husband and lover (Blomqvist) because she has dual appetites as well. This book or film would make for a great gender studies essay because most all the sympathetic characters strongly exhibit both masculine/feminine traits/appetites. It’s beautiful actually. I’m almost tempted to make a chart.

A word about Harriet. All the women portrayed are powerful. You could even say that the dead were as well, in that they posed a threat as they were perceived as unnatural to (or subversive of) a patriarchy (whether it social or religious). Fincher moved passed the victims in the mystery more quickly but he handled Harriet and her cousin better. <spoiler-alert> In Fincher’s version, Harriet is able to torment her brother by his never knowing what happened to her. You see it in the exchange between Martin and Blomqvist when Blomqvist asks Martin what he did with her. I was a bit bothered by the downplay of Martin and Harriet’s victimization by their father, but in thinking it through I like the way Fincher/ Zaillian handled this as well. Explanations can create room for excuses, however reaching, and Martin’s flippancy makes him more calculating than damaged. As if the behavior were not unusual, and he had normalized it, and there was nothing that made it appear not normal. Appetites were what they were; positions of power could do as they should. It is really disturbing. <end> Also of note, I liked that they cast a woman who is reminiscent of Rooney Mara. Doubling her into the role would have been problematic, but close casting their looks was great. And then: Harriet and Lisbeth share vulnerabilities despite socio-economic statuses. Both are motherless and abused by men upon whom they are dependant. They find help with female peers and there is a man who would care for them but cannot save them in the way they require, in a sense they have to save themselves, but that shouldn’t mean they can’t have help by men.

A word about Stellan Skarsgard as Martin Vangar. Here was another role I was worried about. The first Martin Vangar, actor Peter Habar, was pretty good. And then I’d read that some didn’t care for Skarsgard in the role. I found him very good, very convincing in the role.

The music via Reznor and Ross was everything I’d hoped for, and carried some of the procedural scenes nicely. Fincher definitely uses the music and color-wash to create threads and transitions, and of course, his editors instruct the audience members on how important editing is to a film. A word on the lighting, too–I really enjoyed the temperance of it, both in the exterior and interior shots. The sets were excellent, and better (which is another essay). There was certainly more money and experience in the 2011 film.

The violence, though less, is still intense and explicit enough to warrant caution. The pacing allowed for time to move away, to breathe and distance the audience. That Mara and Craig do not pull off the same level of vulnerability as their predecessors helps ease some of the anxieties, especially the implications that there really are people that vulnerable, damaged, and left that way. You see the damage each character has had perpetrated against them and the scars (or tattoos) they still carry more easily in the earlier film’s actors. However, both films approach Larsson’s story with enough difference that I find value in seeing both. I think those familiar with foreign films will respond better to the Swedish film, and/or those who like intense suspense-thrillers. If you have someone to cover your eyes during some of the more violent aspects, I could recommend it to any adult (18 & up–seriously).  The Fincher version will appeal to the American audience member better, but Fincher is quite subversive to Hollywood-film-making so he is not the easiest sell to those unfamiliar or not taken with subversive content. He usually takes films and turns them on the audience.

We tend to leave “important films” to the Indies or Documentaries. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo could be an important film as well. I think it certainly worthy of several critical approaches, especially in light of how the characterizations and political statements are represented.


 *The Men Who Hate Women, is the original (Swedish) title of Stieg Larsson’s book.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Directed by David Fincher; written by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; director of photography, Jeff Cronenweth; edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall; music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; costumes by Trish Summerville; produced by Scott Rudin, Ole Sondberg, Soren Staermose, Cean Chaffin; Starring: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgard (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Geraldine James (Cecilia), Goran Visnjic (Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell) and Ulf Friberg (Wennerstrom).

Rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language. Running time: 158 minutes.


A.O. Scott reviews “Tattooed Heroine Metes out Slick, Punitive Violence” December 19, 2011; Roger Ebert reviews “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” December 19, 2011; IMDb page; Wiki page.

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