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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The trailer for Ghost Rider:  Spirit of Vengeance had scarcely ended, with it's briskly-edited visions of motorcycles and glowing skulls.  What seemed another trailer followed, a figure and then others bathed in, emerging from a black liquid, all of this occurring to the harsh strains of a razor blade cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song."  With the writhing, stylized figures, overtones of S & M and blaring theme, it had the feel of a trailer for some sort of goth James Bond picture, no less so for the appearance of Daniel Craig's name among the credits.  But no, this was the start of David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The cover of the Zeppelin song, with vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's  Karen O (who could pass for the eponymous character's slightly more conventional looking cousin) is the least subtle passage in a soundtrack and score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  The presence of Reznor and Ross is logical, not only for their previous collaboration with director Fincher for The Social Network.  The thematic night of "Girl" is familiar territory for Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails oeuvre (Fincher and Reznor have worked together on several occasions; at one point a minor character in "Girl" comes to the door in a "NIN" t-shirt).

I haven't read the extremely popular novel by the late Stieg Larsson on which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based, nor seen any of the Swedish film adaptions of the three books in his "Millennium Series."  However, this might be a rare instance in which an English-language version of an established European success actually improves upon what has come before.  Which is to say that Mr. Fincher's film, announced by that bold, screeching, pertroleum bath of a title sequence introduces as much style and intelligence as seems possible with source material that is drearily familiar for all its inherent shock value.

This setting might be Sweden, but we get no Scandinavian idyll in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, no winter wonderland.  Whether in Stockholm or some four hours north in the fictional town of Hedestad, landscape, buildings and generally forbidding weather tend to combine into a swirl of grey.  The manse of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an understated (in decoration, if not size) cream color affair, seems almost pastel in comparison to the landscape and buildings about it.  As recently-disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig looks a bit grey himself.  There's no explanation why Mr. Blomkvist sounds so English, but the weary-looking Craig doesn't otherwise seem out of place with his fair hair and blue eyes.  He's summoned to Hedestad by the wealthy Vanger to ostensibly write the great man's memoirs, but really investigate the disappearance of his grandniece, Harriet, some 40 years before.  Plummer appears only briefly in the film, early and late, his Henrik Vanger hospitalized during most of the action.  Plummer's own vocal tendencies seem to fall somewhere between Sweden and Germany, consistent with the alliances of his operatically dysfunctional family, which includes a couple of siblings with Nazi history.  Or as Vanger says to Blomkivst, "You will be investigating thieves, misers, bullies. The most detestable collection of people you will ever meet. My family."

Not the most enticing job offer, but the shrewd Vanger knows that Blomvkist is happy enough to escape his troubles in Stockholm.  In addition to generous remuneration, he also promises damning evidence against the plutocrat who largely ruined Blomkvist and his Millennium magazine with a successful libel suit.  

Blomkvist, by all accounts a gifted investigative reporter, begins to work his way through the boxes of evidence Vanger has amassed during his decades of obsession with the disappearance of the lovely Harriet, who we occasionally see in grainy color flashbacks from the 1960’s.  He also begins to meet that detestable collection of Vangers, most of whom occupy the island on which Henrik resides.  Mikael moves to the island as well, occupying a spare and colorless cottage.  On arrival in the cold and neglected building, he's also greeted by a stray cat.  Such is the plotting - and I don't know whether this detail is a product of the late Mr. Larsson or screenwriter Steve Zaillian - in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that one immediately suspects the poor kitty will not be long for this world.  So it goes, and with equally predictable gore.   

The Vanger who occupies the most impressive piece of real estate, both in terms and land and domicile,  is Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), brother to the long-missing Harriet.  In contrast to the rest of the standoffish clan, Martin is positively encouraging of Blomkvist's efforts.  Perhaps a little too encouraging, any member of the audience actually conscious while the story unfolds might surmise.  That Martin conceals dark secrets behind his amiability and the immaculately modern trappings of his life seems as predictable as the fate of the feline foolish enough to cozy up to the troublemaking outsider, Blomkvist.   

Blomkvist finds that he needs help with his complex assignment.  He consults Henrik's lawyer, Dirch Frode, the man bearing a name worthy of some forgotten Bond villian.  Frode is played by Steven Berkoff, typically rubicund of face and emanating a malevolent intensity.  He might not be responsible for any of the foul deeds perpetrated in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but he has the look of a man who devours children for dinner.  Mr. Frode recommends the unconventional and not terribly chatty investigator, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).  This, of course, our girl with the dragon tattoo.  We get a good idea of Ms. Salander's throughness when she gives a report on Mikael Blomqvist, whom Frode wants checked out before the unusual job offer is tendered from his boss and friend, Henrik Vanger.  Lisbeth reports on Blomkvist precarious finances, says he is a man who represents himself honestly in his work, but who none-the-less carries on an affair with his colleague at Millennium, Erika Berger (Robin Wright, chameleonic as ever).   It is when pressed for more personal details on Blomkvist that Lisbeth mentions the illicit relationship and says, "Sometimes he performs cunnilingus.  Not often enough in my opinion."   " were right not to include that," says Frode.   "Yes, I know," the typically matter-of-fact response from Lisbeth.       

There will be blood.   Rooney Mara tending to Daniel Craig in The Girl  with the Dragon Tattoo.  
Lisbeth looks very much the 21st-century outsider, but there is something almost Dickensian about the situation of this 23-year-old ward of the Swedish state.  That redolence of 19th-century waifdom is not necessarily a pleasing one.  Perhaps it is realistic that someone Lisbeth's age with a troubled history and a criminal record might find herself at the mercy of the state, much as Sweden's age of majority, like most countries, is 18.   But the trappings here are those of old-fashioned bathos given an attention-grabbing and salacious modern makeover.   

Lisbeth has a kindly guardian who suffers a stroke, leaving her at the mercy of a lawyer, nefarious even by the standards of bad fiction or troubling real life.  This the bearded, corpulent, altogether rather ursine Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen; now that, my friends, is a name).  Bjurman controls Lisbeth's money and even her freedom by threatening to have her institutionalized if she doesn't respond, shall we say, in a more friendly manner to his company.  Take a moment and let your imagination nervously enter this dark cave of potentiality.   Now go much deeper.  

Stieg Larrson apparently witnessed the gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth when he was 15.  Reportedly, he never forgave himself for failing to intervene in the attack.  The Swedish title of the first book in the series is Man som hatar knivvor, which translates to Men Who Hate Women.  The homage to the real Lisbeth and ostensible goal of spotlighting the ill-treatment of women are well and good.  It actually makes sense that the fictional Lisbeth is the victim of a past rape; it would explain at least some of her tight bundle of personality disorders.  And the crime still happens to too many women.  But the abuse visited upon Lisbeth by the lawyer Burman and the fact that Larsson made her a bi-sexual woman who just happens to take up with a beautiful lesbian takes the story into a kind of male voyeurism, hardly original, though quite dark in its own way.  Something the author probably did not consciously intend .

Burman certainly gets his comeuppance.  Lisbeth exacts brutal revenge and assures her independence by blackmailing the lawyer.  However, it hardly requires cynicism to think that showing the young woman's prevailing over evil men is a handy scrim before which to illumine their own theatrically violent behavior in the first place.  The travails of Lisbeth, along with the revelation to which she and Blomkvist independently arrive that there has been a serial killer loose amongst the Vangers (more than one, as it turns out), push The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into a kind of shock value storytelling.  It's yet more excessive violence without any hint of fresh insight.  Frankly, instead of Men Who Hate Women, Larsson would have been more honest to title the first in his series, Men Who Make Lots of Money By Trading in Violence Against Women.   Of course, he didn't really live to see the profits in this case.  

Each of us decides where to place our line of excess, of exploitation, if we have such a line at all.  When Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves came out, I recall defending the film to someone who found it exploitative.  I argued that the film depicted, in rather original fashion,  some of the bad things that happen to women, even in our supposedly modern world.  Don't shoot the messenger I said.  But then von Trier followed Breaking the Waves with his equally original Dancer in the Dark, putting Bjork's angelic character through the grinder for no good purpose that I could glean.  It seemed too much.  

What keeps The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tolerable for it 158 minutes is the quality of this particular production.  David Fincher has certainly had better source material with which to work - Zodiac perhaps the best example - but few are going to glide more seamlessly through the dark corridors of these murder stories than this director.  For her part, Rooney Mara does well with what is a razor sharp but razor thin characterization.  Her delivery of Lisbeth's few words is metronomic, this perhaps her own attempt at accent.   But beneath the pallor, the believable fierceness and even despite that almost android-like cadence, Ms. Mara manages to convey a heartbeat.   

 If you are going to see but one film just now about an extraordinarily dysfunctional Swedish family that spawns multiple serial killers, its mysteries unraveled at least partially by a brilliant ass-kicking goth waif who suffers violent trespasses but always gets her revenge…then, by all means, I guess, make it The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.   You will at least find yourself in good hands in terms of this latest film version.  If however, you might like to see a film whose story isn’t so predicated on rather dubious shock value, you might want to head south from Stockholm and stop in Denmark for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration.   You’ll also get a story about an exceptionally toxic family haunted by the loss of one of it’s female constituents.   But you’ll also get something altogether more haunting and original, certainly one of the high points of the Dogma 95 movement.   



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