An American re-make of a popular Swedish film trilogy (itself based on a best-selling book series), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is part mystery, part techno-thriller, with a smattering of sex and violence. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an elderly gent who gives Blomkvist the task of investigating the disappearance of his niece Harriet, now forty years gone. Vanger gives Blomkvist a tour of the neighborhood, pointing to nearby houses that accommodate the occasional Nazi family member. Vanger’s distaste for his family is made clear, but in a whodunnit, just because a guy decries his Nazi family members doesn’t mean he’s not a suspect…
As Blomkvist dives into photo archives and has the perfunctory “Aha!” moments, his investigation intersects with the hacker-for-hire Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara). Pierced, tattooed, and decked out in grubby shades of black, she’s not a part of the respected world of Vanger and Blomkvist’s European sophistication. The pair make an unlikely partnership, connected by their desire to catch a serial killer of women.
Unfortunately, though, there’s too much plot and not enough connective tissue to keep this story sailing. The first half maintains segregated storylines for Salandar and Blomkvist, leaving Salandar’s story prior to investigating Harriet superfluous. The bisexual hacker’s motivation for helping the straight-laced journalist seems to stem from her own experiences, but Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian don’t seem to grasp that a woman doesn’t need to be raped by a fat asshole to want to catch a killer who rapes and mutilates other women.
Closing the picture without the emotional pitch of Fight Club or the sober thoughtfulness of Se7en, Fincher feels too removed from the volatile material he’s working with, which leaves the representation of Salandar particularly suspect. The vicious, gag-inducing rape scene (followed by an equally repulsive act of revenge) fails to play a central role in the film’s plot, which makes you wonder why it was put there in the first place. Was it filmed merely to shock, and thereby titillate, during a slow patch in the film? Similarly, Salandar randomly mounts Blomkvist in an act that you think holds some strategic purpose, but a motive never materializes. Is it just an excuse to get Rooney Mara naked again, this time allowing us to take pleasure in her nudity, as opposed to our disgust during the rape scene?
The whole thing calls back to the 1903 Thomas Edison film wherein he infamously electrocuted Topsy the elephant in a campaign to show the alleged “dangers” of alternating current. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo taps into this same sense of macabre curiosity, allowing (or subjecting?) the audience to lurid events with little artistic pretense.
When you talk about a director you like, you almost speak about them like a dear friend, giving them the benefit of the doubt should people question their actions. If Fincher were removed from the credits, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would stand as an irresponsible narrative, allowing the audience to take varying forms of pleasure in types violence that our protagonists are investigating. Had Fincher invested more of himself in the film, offered some meditation on sexual violence, and gotten a better screenwriter to connect scenes that feel marooned from the overall narrative it wouldn’t prove so problematic and stale.
Want a happy meal with your forced fellatio? Because icing on the cake is the flagrant product placement throughout the film. Do these brands think the association with such problematic depictions of sex and violence will help sell more goods? The displays of such crass advertising in such a dark film speak to the careless exploitation present in other areas.
Films like Machete don’t have to justify their violence since the whole point is exaggerated machismo, and Fincher’s depiction of bare-knuckle brawls in Fight Club spoke to the emotional disconnect the men feel from others, themselves, and the world. People shouldn’t automatically shy away from sexuality and violence since it’s a part of the human experience. The sex and violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, however, feels too prurient and emotionally disconnected to be worth your time.