The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Revenge Flick Meets Scooby Doo….
[This review contains major spoilers]
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in trouble right from the start. Anyone going into David Fincher’s fast-tracked remake of the Swedish hit will be aware of current 007 Daniel Craig’s marquee presence, and the flashy CGI title sequence seems like a Fight Club-esque, torture porn piss-take of a classic James Bond intro. It also features a horrendous cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, one of two disastrous music choices in the movie.
Superficially a grungy, modern thriller with controversial scenes of rape and sexual degradation, the sordid details providing a smoke screen for what is actually a very pedestrian old fashioned locked room mystery. Some of the creaky, cliche-ridden plot revelations wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo.
Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomqvist, a Swedish journalist who just got clobbered in a libel case brought against him by a powerful and corrupt businessman. After an intrusive background check perpetrated by punk cyber hacker and researcher Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), Blomqvist is approached by magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) with a special assignment.
Ostensibly summoned to Vanger’s island home in the north of Sweden to write the elderly tycoon’s biography, Blomqvist is tasked with solving the disappearance of Henrik’s grand-niece Harriet forty years before. She vanished from a family gathering while everyone was distracted by a car accident on the bridge, the island’s only link to dry land.
Moving into a cottage on the island, Blomqvist begins sifting through Henrik’s old files in search of clues, and turns up the missing girl’s diary, and is intrigued by a list of names in the back, with mysterious numbers next to them.
Blomqvist hires Lisbeth as a researcher after learning of her sterling work researching him previously, and she soon helps him crack the case.
The mystery element of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo moves the film very quickly into B movie territory. For starters, there aren’t many suspects, and one of them is played by Steven Berkoff. Berkoff has made a career playing baddies, so surely he can’t be the baddie in an intelligent thriller such as this? Unless it’s a double bluff, of course…
Once Henrik falls ill, the list of suspects shortens further, but it doesn’t take a lot to work it out. In an earlier scene, Henrik is showing Blomqvist about the island, pointing out where each of his family members lives – the Vanger politics are rather dysfunctional, and although they hate each other, they all still live on the same little island.
If horror and mystery movies have taught us one thing, it is: if you are looking for the bad guy, try the house on the hill first. Perhaps his lights will be burning eerily through the night, a la chez Bates in Psycho, or even MacMurphy’s shack in The Thing. But if you’re looking for the baddie, head for the high ground.
The island only has one entrance, and it seems for a while that Blomqvist will be thrillingly cut off from the outside world. After all, it’s snowing and he can’t get a signal on his mobile.
That idea is quickly discarded as Blomqvist and Lisbeth dive into their investigation, which involves a lot of looking up things on the internet and sifting through old photographs. This is hardly exciting, and stretches credibility further, as they pick up clues which no-one investigating the case over the previous forty years has noticed.
Once the killer is rumbled, the film is locked so fully in to B-movie cliches that the psycho can’t resist a good old fashioned expositionary speech before gutting Blomqvist in the custom built abattoir in his basement.
This is made doubly amusing by the fact he’s making an expositionary speech to the man currently playing James Bond, something Austin Powers lampooned so brilliantly. And trebly amusing by the villain putting the gun down, right where the audience can see it, presumably because he needs more hands to gesticulate with.
The killer dallies further by putting on his Enya CD, perhaps the least terrifying music choice for a murder scene ever, although Orinco Flow does qualify as torture. At least, I think that’s what I heard…or did I just dream it?
There is one final pause before the killer slices Blomqvist up, as he reveals that he too was abused as a child…he couldn’t just be a sick nutter who enjoys murdering people. And before he gets chance to say, “No Mr Blomqvist, I expect you to die…after I’ve told you about my childhood…” Lisbeth sneaks up behind him and buries a seven iron in his mush.
Other gripes include a distracting level of product placement. We’re all familiar with character in Hollywood movies using Apple Macs for everything from solving murders to hacking into alien motherships, but this goes above and beyond. Coca Cola, Epson Printers and even Marlboro cigarettes are blatantly plugged during this movie.
My more serious concern about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the muddled approach to the disturbing sexual violence in the film. The abuse heaped on Lisbeth by her legal guardian Bjurman simply isn’t equaled out. I’ve read Lisbeth being hailed as a feminist hero, but she’s only that as a counterweight to what looks distressingly like someone’s rape fantasy.
The film’s anal rape scene is lingered over with leering, hairy-handed, lip-smacking detail. Even when Bjurman has Lisbeth handcuffed face down on the bed, he has to say: “I forgot to ask – do you like anal sex?” just to make it absolutely certain which hole he’s planning to violate.
When Lisbeth exacts her revenge, it feels like we’ve skipped back a couple of decades to Michael Winner’s grubby feminist revenge fantasy, Dirty Weekend. The film chickens out at this point. While we quite graphically get to see the rapist eating Lisbeth’s ass, the camera coyly shies away from showing any male nudity other than chest and belly.
Later, when Lisbeth finally gets to enjoy some consensual sex with Daniel Craig, the film gets it wrong again. It tries to be smart and reverse the roles – after Blomqvist suffers a traumatic moment, Lisbeth suggests he gets out of those wet clothes – yes, that old chestnut.
Blomqvist obliges, but primly keeps his underpants on. Next thing, we get a gratuitous eyeful of Lisbeth, full frontal and riding him on the bed, slipping his pants off when she’s on top to prevent the big headlining male star from having his todger on display.
It’s a nice change to have the man play the damsel in distress, and you might charitably praise Daniel Craig for playing against type as the frankly pathetic Blomqvist. Or, if you’re not feeling charitable, you could say he was horribly miscast.
There are two things which prevent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from being a laughably turgid, unimaginatively plotted, and questionably motivated murder mystery thriller.
One is the relatively unknown Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. Abused throughout her life, she is distant and haunted, and focuses all her rage into exacting devastating revenge. With her harshly cut hair and multiple piercings, she keeps the world at bay with her deliberately prickly appearance. She never lets her guard down, even when admitting to Blomqvist she likes working with him, or using him to get herself off. And Mara never once winks to the camera to let you know she’s acting.
The other thing that saves the film, perversely, is it’s bloated running time. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the same length as The Bridge on the River Kwai. Not as much happens in Girl as Kwai, but the epic length at least tricks you into feeling it must have some kind of substance, some kind of weight, if it’s that long.
That monster running time also gives David Fincher time to run his icy fingers up and down your spine. As usual, Fincher’s camera stalks around the movie like an axe murderer looking for his next victim, creating a sense of palpable dread. His usual palette of murky blacks and tobacco browns completes Fincher’s usual filthy worldview.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite its reprehensible failings, is still a must watch – it’s the perfect film for a pub debate.