Reporting Eric Henderson
Not that I’ve read it, but the original title of the book that has become The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women.
David Fincher’s adaptation (the second, following a blockbuster 2007 version in author Stieg Larsson’s original Swedish) makes all too clear why the title changed.
What was conceptualized as a mystery with, at its center, an excoriation of violence perpetrated upon women has become a series celebrated for its depiction of a woman committing acts of understandable, retaliatory violence.
And all of it is rendered absolutely justifiable because, even though the titular character Lisbeth Salander readily admits that she’s “insane,” totally maladaptive, she has been presented with a system (to put it mildly) that renders any other reaction even more insane. In other words, peer beyond the ink, the labret piercings and the glam-not-glam jet-black ensemble, and you have a young adult at the mercy of her legal guardian, who brutally rapes her in exchange for her supper.
Is this purportedly feminist scenario problematic? Yes, unquestionably. Is it valiant? Oy, next question. Is it the basis for an entertaining character? Let the bestseller charts speak for themselves.
Though the “A” story of Dragon Tattoo concerns debased journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s assignment from Henrik Vanger, member of a self-made family of industrialists, to track down the person who killed Henrik’s great-niece Harriet, most audiences would probably not give a cuss if Blomkvist were entirely replaced in the plot by Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine.
This is Lisbeth’s show, and if Fincher’s movie appears to get off to a slow start, it’s largely because the set-up for Daniel Craig’s Nancy Drew-ish mission promises a dreadful amount of screen time spent turning yellowed book pages, zooming in on digitized photos until they only resemble grains of quicksilver, engaging in brittle conversations with ropey old distant relatives and scanning the Bible for its most prurient Old Testament tales from the crypt.
This when most people would rather just see Lisbeth (played by Rooney Mara here, but who could’ve likely been rendered memorable by just about anyone, to be honest) do unto others with a specifically-shaped piece of metal.
Fincher — coming off a string of complex but remote movies both underheralded (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and overexposed (The Social Network) — brings to Larsson’s text a similar sense of jaundiced discontent. (Seriously, does D.P. Jeff Cronenweth smear his lens with mustard before every shot?) But he stops short of taking a gruesome swan dive into the cesspool this material requires, as he did back in 1995 with Se7en. In fact, the only moment Fincher really gives into the Millennium books’ darkest impulses is during another of his typically jaw-dropping abstract credits sequences — this one a study in alabaster liquids that suggests Jan Švankmajer having a vivid daymare inside an Apple store.
Whenever The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo keeps its title character in the mix, it works, if even only as a parody (as when a stone-faced Lisbeth asks permission to dispatch a dangerous psycho: “May I kill him?”). Whenever it strays, even Fincher’s silken pallor can’t keep it silky compelling.