Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sony/Columbia/MGM, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a 2011 production of a story that began as a Swedish-set and Swedish-language mystery novel by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish author and radical socialist who put his life at risk fighting the Swedish Right and edited a socialist magazine called Expo. When he died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 50 three completed mystery novels were discovered among his effects, all of them dealing with a magazine called Millennium and a private-eye character called Lisbeth Salander, a young punk woman in her early 20’s who had been judged criminally insane at age 12 for trying to burn her father to death (“I got 80 percent of him,” she says in the movie, though he’s actually shown as a live character towards the end) and who is allowed to live on the outside and work, but who isn’t allowed access to her own money without the approval of her guardian. When she isn’t hanging out at Lesbian bars and picking up girlfriends de jour she’s employed by a private detective agency on a clandestine basis because the work she does for them — essentially hacking into their targets’ computer systems and extracting all their personal information. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first of the three novels to be published, a year after Larsson’s death in 2005 — the original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women but the English-language version was given a name with more “mysteryicity” and more of an emphasis on the character of Lisbeth, who’s one of the most original and idiosyncratic “sleuth” characters ever invented. The original book was filmed in Sweden in 2009 and the two subsequent entries in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, were also filmed in Sweden, all with an actress named Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth.

When Sony and its movie subsidiaries, Columbia and MGM, bought the rights to do an English-language remake, the studio was heavily lobbied to allow Rapace to repeat the role in the English version (sort of like Ingrid Bergman introducing herself to U.S. audiences in the English-language Intermezzo, playing a part she’d previously portrayed in a Swedish film), but Rapace herself begged off the assignment because she’d already made three films as Lisbeth and she was understandably tired of playing her. The actress they finally got — after considering a lot of hot young “names” including Carey Mulligan, Ellen Page, Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman, Mia Wasikowska, Keira Knightley, Anne Hathaway, Olivia Thirlby, Emily Browning, Eva Green, Scarlett Johansson, Sophie Lowe, Sarah Snook, Léa Seydoux, Emma Watson, Evan Rachel Wood, and Katie Jarvis — was Rooney Mara, who’d mostly done TV work (including an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit called “Fat” from 2006 that I shall want to dig out of the boxed sets and watch again) and had been in such underwhelming assignments as the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friends (With Benefits). It probably helped that she had worked with the director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher, before — she was in The Social Network as Erica Albright, the girl who dumps Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and gets him in such a pissy mood against all women that he starts the chain of events that leads him to create Facebook — but she’s absolutely right for the role (though I’m somewhat handicapped in assessing that because I’ve never read Larsson’s book nor seen the Swedish film): short, compact, androgynous, athletic, energetic and with just the right sort of chip on her shoulder to be believable in this very interesting character (and she even pronounces the “t” in “often”!).

According to an trivia entry, she even had herself pierced for real in all the various places (including multiple ear, eyebrow, and nipple piercings) the character has had done instead of just wearing simulated jewelry — though, as Charles pointed out, she almost certainly stopped short of actually having herself tattooed and the titular dragon that extends from her left shoulder halfway down her back is likely makeup. (Another contributor says Noomi Rapace also had herself genuinely pierced; piercings close up again if you don’t keep them open with the jewelry, while tattoos are almost always irreversible.) The film contains two central characters: Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig, who according to put on weight for this role so he wouldn’t be seen as James Bond with a different name), who co-owns an independent magazine called Millennium with his co-editor and girlfriend Erika Berger (Robin Wright) — a laconic entry in Lisbeth’s dossier on him says that “he practices cunnilingus, not often enough in my opinion,” and that both he and Erika were married to other people when they started dating and his marriage broke up as a result but hers didn’t (which suggests interesting and kinky possibilities for a spin-off right there!). When the film begins they’ve just lost a major libel suit filed by international banker Hans-Eric Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) and Mikael has been socked with a judgment of 600,000 kroner (Charles informed me that a kroner is worth about 60 cents, so this would be $360,000, not much by international-banker standards but enough to wipe out Mikael’s life savings), and now that the judgment has broken him (at least financially) he’s amenable to being hired by a mysterious tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl relative of his who was last seen in the audience at a parade in 1966.

For the first half of this long (158-minute) movie the plotline involving Mikael (who, being Swedish, at least has a legitimate excuse for spelling his name that way) intercuts with that of Lisbeth, who when she’s not busy hacking into other people’s computers for her bosses with cheery disregard for the law is having to deal with the slimy new guardian she’s been assigned, Nils Bjurman (Yorick von Wageningen — so “Yorick” is a real Scandinavian name! I always thought Shakespeare made it up!), who first asks her a lot of intrusive and seemingly irrelevant questions about her sexuality, like how many lovers she’s had, how many have been male, whether she’s been treated for an STD and whether she’s been tested for HIV. We soon learn that he has a personal reason for wanting this information; he’s decided that he’s going to extract sexual services from her every time she wants money for any reason at all. First he makes her blow him in his office so she can get a new state-of-the-art laptop; then he makes her come to his home, overpowers her, puts handcuffs on her, ties her to his bed and anally rapes her. Then she gets her revenge, overpowering him and leaving him in a room where she ties him up, strips him, sticks a fearsome-looking metal butt plug up his ass (without lube, of course!) and shows him a secret video of him raping her which she shot with a hidden camera in her backpack, with one of the buttons on the front serving to conceal the lens. She says that unless she gets a formal declaration from him and regular monthly reports stating she’s sane and able to handle her own money, she’ll publicize his crime by posting the video on the Internet — and for good measure she tattoos his chest with the word “Rapist” and says the video of him raping her will automatically post itself if her computer catches him visiting a Web site offering tattoo removal. (According to the Wikipedia page on Stieg Larsson, he was inspired to create the Lisbeth character in the first place over his guilt that, as a young man, he had witnessed a girl named Lisbeth being gang-raped and had done nothing to stop it.)

Lisbeth and Mikael don’t actually meet until almost exactly the halfway point of this film — it’s explained that the private detective agency he hires was the one the banker used against him, and it was Lisbeth who hacked into Mikael’s computer and got the derogatory information that helped the banker win the case — but once they do, the film develops chilling force as it spirals through a number of relatively conventional mystery conventions given a decidedly unconventional “spin,” including a private island where most of the Vanger family lives; a bizarre assortment of relatives, including serial killers and neo-Nazis, that make the dysfunctional families of Law and Order look like Norman Rockwell could have painted them by comparison (so many of the Vanger men molest their young female relatives that undergoing child sexual abuse seems almost a rite of passage in this family!); the sudden reappearance of a character we’d been led to believe was dead; and a father-and-son team of serial killers of women: father killed women and used his murders to dramatize various condemnations in the Book of Leviticus — this took director Fincher back to familiar territory: his thoroughly repulsive film Se7en, about a serial killer who made his murders dramatizations of the Seven Deadly Sins, though at least in this one the murders happened so long before the main part of the story that they were kept mostly invisible to us and we were spared the sickening details that made Se7en, at least to me, not only a bad movie but positively repulsive to watch (and I must confess to heaving a sigh of relief that Larsson and screenwriter Steven Zaillian spared us having him kill a Gay man to dramatize Leviticus’s most famous prohibition: 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman,, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them” [King James translation, emphasis in original] — which makes me wonder how any self-respecting Queer person can believe in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but I digress); after daddy died his son went into the family business but in a considerably more realistic and less showy way, building himself a torture dungeon in his basement and disposing of the bodies afterwards rather than leaving them out to be found. (In one of the climactic scenes this character captures Mikael, ties him up — this film has more bondage scenes than any I can think of other than an S/M porn movie — and puts a plastic bag over his head to suffocate him, which fortunately for him takes quite a bit longer than I’d always assumed it did and gives time for Lisbeth to come on the scene and rescue him — and both Charles and I noted the irony of James Bond, or at least the most recent actor to play him, needing someone else to save him from the super-villain’s baroque trap!)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie that highlights the absurdity of the motion picture ratings system and the “R” rating in particular — a film can get an “R” if it has just two dirty words (this was the problem with the currently playing documentary Bully) or if it has as much brutality, violence and kinky sex as this one — and it’s also a quite exciting thriller, a bit too long (especially with one false climax after another to stretch the ending past the two-hour running time that would have been right for this material) but a quite credible evocation of the film noir spirit (cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth manages the feat of getting the chiaroscuro look of black-and-white noir in a color film) and with an original music score by Trent Reznor (as an in-joke, one of the characters wears a T-shirt advertising Reznor’s “band,” Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross that’s used sparingly and with the reticence more common in modern movies than in the classic age, when even in otherwise great movies like the 1941 Maltese Falcon you want to tell the composer to shut up already. The chemistry between Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara is excellent — I particularly liked the sex scenes between them, kicked off by a peremptory order from her that might have come from an Ayn Rand woman or the Whitney Houston character in The Bodyguard, especially the second one, in which he wants to get back to business and she keeps it going until she has her orgasm, whether or not he ever does (a nice reversal of the way heterosexuality all too often gets portrayed in the movies — or happens in real life, for that matter!) — but the true sense of life in this film comes from her (come to think of it, there’s a bit of Conan Doyle in their relationship, with he as Watson and she as Holmes): the character is so unforgettable that one can readily see why Larsson’s books became a worldwide cult phenomenon and have made it to the big screen when quite a lot of less edgy detective fiction around these days hasn’t.

Incidentally, I read a New Yorker profile on the Larsson phenomenon which centered mainly around an interview with his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who because Larsson never either married her nor registered them as a domestic partnership (according to Wikipedia, that was because under Swedish law they would have had to make their addresses public record, and he didn’t want to do that because he didn’t want their Right-wing enemies to know where they lived) got screwed out of any royalties from his books. Instead the money went to his father and brother — and Gabrielsson said that she owned his laptop, which contained three-fourths of a fourth Lisbeth Salander novel as well as drafts and notes for up to six additional ones. She offered to release the book and complete it herself if she could get a share of the estate, but Larsson’s blood relatives refused: an intrigue that could itself make for an interesting mystery thriller! The film downplays Larsson’s socialist politics — not surprisingly for an American corporate product — but given that the story’s villains include an international banker and two neo-Nazis, there are certainly hints of where this story’s creator was coming from. It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to read the book — not only because books are usually intellectually richer but also because some of the plot ambiguities might be clarified in print, much the way Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep became a best-seller again after the 1946 film was revived during the height of the Bogart cult in the early 1970’s and a lot of people (including yours truly) bought the damned thing simply to see if it made sense of all the loose ends left in the movie — which it did to some extent, though not entirely!