Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is a movie full of unintentional paradoxes. It’s based on a widely-read book that has already been adapted into a motion picture, but it’s surprisingly hung up on its own plot. It doesn’t want to pander by underlining anything for its audience, but it’s so packed with dialogue that it strains under the weight of its own exposition. Problematic or clunky storytelling are usually benign flaws, but in Dragon Tattoo it’s a grave shortcoming, as audiences are encouraged to whoop-whoop their way through a sickening scene intended to wipe the slate clean for the movie’s second half.
A slick and meaningless opening title sequence (Bond credits outfitted in Goth leather) opens the film, providing commercial packaging for the movie’s negligent treatment of challenging sexual politics. In the first few scenes we meet Mikael Blomkvist, who we learn has suffered a professional scandal relayed via news broadcasts and his sullen reactions to them. Because of the disgrace, Blomkvist leaves town to take a job with rich mogul Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his niece, which happened 40 years ago. This takes a mighty long time to get to, and it’s even longer before Blomkvist enlists the help of hacker supreme and title girl Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
The scandal that drives Blomkvist out of town is given enough detail to give him motivation but not enough to be of much interest. At the end of the movie, after Blomkvist and Salander have solved the disappearance of the niece, this subplot returns, makes the movie 30 minutes longer, and pays zero dividends. There’s really no reason (aside from catering to the presumably large base of fans of the book) that the movie can’t start with Blomkvist showing up at Vanger’s as a reporter with a mysterious past. It’s exactly the kind of clumsiness that all of Dragon Tattoo suffers from: front-loading an element of the story, using it as a device to move the story forward, then resolving it to the satisfaction of no one who asks more of a movie than that its plot work itself out. There’s a going-through-the-motions quality to all of it, even through the kinetic bits that rush by with Fincher’s flair for movement and efficiency in action sequences.
Being finicky about the storytelling technique in a major Hollywood release is a little like going to a bullfight and complaining about animal cruelty, but in Dragon Tattoo a bigger problem is revealed by the treatment of plot. It’s a whodunit that puts a lot of emphasis on exactly who done exactly what, but the mystery at its center isn’t very surprising or exciting. It is, however, really icky. Dragon Tattoo has multiple rape scenes, and while the source material is reputed to be a schlocky feminist revenge fantasy, Fincher’s adaptation is unconvincing in this regard.
Salander is a ward of the state who depends on a public official for her allowance. The official asks that she come to his home to collect a check, where he brutally violates her. Fincher’s treatment of the scene isn’t really problematic in itself, but it’s just another gear-creaking front-loading of a plot element. It’s real horror, but it also has that going-through-the-motions slog that the rest of the plot does. Compare this to Fincher’s Zodiac, in which pieces don’t always fit together and the large canvas and ambling storytelling are part of the movie’s ideas about truth and order.
Dragon Tattoo has none of the self awareness that Zodiac does, and Salander’s rape exists only so that she can come back later for an even more grotesque scene that practically has an APPLAUSE sign flashing above it. The hooting and hollering that I heard at my screening in Times Square was disturbing, not because people were cheering violence, but because the audience felt washed clean of the earlier rape scene, excited to be rewarded for watching their dragon-tattooed girl suffer a tragedy so that she may vindicate herself by inflicting worse pain on her tormentor later. The terror of what happened to Salander is mitigated by the forward movement of the plot. If you don’t think this is simplistic slate-clearing, ask yourself how it is that Salander, someone who’s suffered so horribly at the hands of men, slides so easily into bed with Blomkvist later.
This flippant treatment of meting out justice returns later, when Salander asks Blomkvist for permission to kill someone. The scene is troubling not only because of the brutish concept of justice it adopts but in the way it shows a woman granting this high moral authority to a male. All of this talk about women, violence, and revenge in movies brings Tarantino to mind, but can you imagine Jackie Brown, The Bride, or Shosanna asking for male permission to go do damage?
Tarantino’s movies are flippant about violence and loose with their gender politics, but they’re also comical and self-aware in the extreme, while Fincher’s latest movie has a sleek, cold ignorance about what it’s up to. Dragon Tattoo is offensive, not necessarily because Fincher seems so unaware of the sexual politics in his own movie, but because he treats it so sloppily. His movie has no ideas, only plot arrangements. You can’t just move around pieces of a story like building blocks and be satisfied that the whole thing stands up. When the pervasive and horrific problems of misogyny and rape are put in the service of this simplistic block-building, you wind up with a problematic movie that has a sickening obliviousness about its own content.