And not just because the signs are all written in Swedish but everybody speaks English. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (playing here in the Fort) is progressive and modern, but it’s also needlessly byzantine, strangely devoid of a sense of place, and a bit toothless, which is puzzling considering the power it could potentially wield. Before I try to unpack my complicated feelings about this movie, let me offer you a word of advice: should you have access to a wormhole or time traveling portal, please go back and un-read the Stieg Larsson novel upon which the film is based. I think a lot of the conventional movie-watching pleasure that Dragon Tattoo affords depends upon not knowing the solution to the mystery Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander (a serviceable Daniel Craig and a nigh-unrecognizable Rooney Mara, trying very hard and very nearly knocking her performance out of the park)—at least that’s what I surmised from the audible reactions of my fellow moviegoers.
Suffice it to say that, again much like the European Union, Dragon Tattoo combines American and European style to intriguing effect. Director David Fincher (one of my favorites) has made a film that moves like a Scandinavian glacier and is as beautiful to look at, and also as sublime, in the old school sense of the word. The whole production is designed like a monumentally disturbing issue of the West Elm catalogue. (As an aside, shareholders in Apple, Sony, Google, Epson, and Nokia must be hoping this film becomes a taste-making hit.) The movie takes its time putting together Mikael, a disgraced journalist hired to solve a decades-old family murder by an aging oligarch (Christopher Plummer, who I couldn’t be more pleased to see have a late-career renaissance) and Lisbeth, the young and troubled, and titularly tattooed, computer genius whose background dossier on Blomkvist caught his attention, and prompted him to hire her as a research assistant. The first act of the story explains Lisbeth’s desire for justice for killers of women and hatred of misogyny in general through a traumatic backstory that apparently Mikael doesn’t require. But again, this is a problem with the source material that I said I wouldn’t mention. I will say that Fincher don’t flinch. Another element of Dragon Tattoo that felt more European than puritanical, um, American, to me, is that the film does not look away from Lisbeth’s body, or downplay the violence done to it. Also, characters are shown smoking. Gasp.
Once the two do team up, we get a version of the buddy cop plot that sheds most of its triteness through the unusually beautiful setting and the twists of the plot. This film takes the pathetic fallacy and revels in it. The landscape of the present is drained of color and temperature, and Mikael and Lisbeth’s detective work brings in the color-drenched and sanguinary palate of the past in a bit of smart visual irony. Reznor, teaming up again with Fincher after his Oscar-winning work in The Social Network, gives the film a depth through his score that I’m not sure it always completely earns. It’s a rip-roaring good mystery, but the heavy-handed indulgence of the opening credits is unfortunately a thematic rhyme with the at times self-righteous tone of the novels. Oops. Did it again.
But this point brings me to my own as yet un-worked-through response to this movie. It comes gloriously alive at the most violent moments, which is a bit unsettling for a story that purports to expose and condemn the ugliness of physical violence, particularly against women. The book (last time, I promise), the Swedish title of which is “Men Who Hate Women,” describes the brutal manifestations of such hatred in passages so lengthy and rich (and a shade purple) that it makes one a bit uncomfortable. Fincher, whose filmography includes Se7en and Zodiac, is clearly gifted at representing violence in a complicated and serious way. But does that put the film at cross-purposes with itself? I’m genuinely not sure. The relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth also treads on provocative ground. There is one moment in particular, late in the film, where Lisbeth asks Mikael’s permission for something. I smiled in appreciation at a snappy and satisfying exchange, but at the same time was a little disturbed: Isn’t Lisbeth’s entire ontology designed around resisting reliance on men for anything? Is Lisbeth a twenty-first century action hero, or another broken doll that needs fixing? I will say, it’s a treat to leave a theatre with questions such as these, rather than ones along the lines of “Do you think Adam Sandler was hypnotized when he made this movie, or just stoned?”