by J.M. Tyree
from Film Quarterly Spring 2012, Vol. 65, No. 3
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s latest antiblockbuster, is a baroque rethink of the serial-killer subgenre; a subtly retuned adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s penny-dreadful Millennium trilogy; a technical achievement of narrative compression and pacing in a mainstream thriller; and the most recent proof of the director’s trademark habit of unleashing bad vibes in the multiplex. It’s a sick kind of holiday movie. The story is bookended by two Christmases—a year its two protagonists pass among murderers, sexual predators, and a wealthy family with a history of sadistic brutality (and Nazi sympathies), all stirred up by a cold case involving the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old girl from a private island. With good reason, Fincher called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “the feel-bad movie of the season.” The director renders its source material in the coolly droll yet fundamentally shocking and disturbing style of his previous films about psychos, Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and Zodiac (2007). In the manner of Tod Browning’s subversive 1931 take on Dracula, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo frightens the viewer while injecting grimly fiendish jokes into an earnest literary artifact with an intractably complicated storyline.
Like Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie subdivided into dozens of impeccable segments, some lavishly arranged shots lasting no more than a flashing second or two. Among the first in this series of mini-films is the peculiar titles sequence that recalls both Fincher’s early days as a director of music videos and the James Bond movies’ graphic set pieces. It features a fittingly icy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” vocalized by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. Along with this gender-bending, the song’s lyrics provide signposts for interpretation of a film that will “whisper tales of gore” set in remixed Viking landscapes. The sequence’s images of black sludge dripping from motorcycle tires, laptop keyboards, electronic wires, deadly flowers, dark phoenixes, and faces vomiting coins and stinging insects (a reference to the pseudonym, Wasp, of the eponymous hacker in Larsson’s novel) suggest the stylized iconography of a world drowning in liquid evil. These and other touches of deliberate artifice—Polaroid-tinted flashbacks, talking text from the primary victim’s diary, establishing shots of moving trains and snowbound houses that turn landscapes into glimpses from nightmares, multitasking montages that playfully detach sight and sound, and Fincher’s toxic light filters—at once encapsulate and provide layers of chill to distance the awful horrors in store. The movie’s sound design often intrudes, consistently and violently, in ways that lend a surreal aura to the noise of passing trains, closing doors, and moving elevators.
These reminders of unreality also might serve as annotations to a story that is about acts of reading and misreading. Both the novel and the movie begin with a major interpretative mistake. Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal), missing for forty years from her wealthy family’s enclave, is presumed murdered. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has been receiving mysterious packages each year containing pressed flowers, posted from around the world. He hires a disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), to look into Harriet’s case, and Blomkvist takes on freelance security consultant and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as his research assistant. Together, they uncover what Blomkvist describes as a story of “rape, torture, fire, animals, religion— am I missing anything?” Of course, everyone is missing something in this thriller, namely that the flowers are being sent by Harriet herself to let her beloved uncle know that she remains alive, rather than by a clever killer attempting to torment Henrik.
Why the most obvious assumption about these secret messages is never made could be the focus of a Derridean highlight reel about the slipperiness of writing, from the expanded definition of the word in 1967’s Of Grammatology (the flowers form a kind of living hieroglyph) to the games about letters in 1980’s The Post Card (Harriet’s flowers are messages mailed but not adequately received). Fincher’s emphasis on textual instability and the control of documents intersects with what Derrida calls the “politics of the archive” in his 1995 essay Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (translated by Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 4). In Melancholy and the Archive (Continuum, 2011), Jonathan Boulter calls archive fever “an addiction to past events which transforms the subject into a crypt” (141), and in Fincher’s film all manner of often macabre texts, images, and objects entomb as much as they disclose, as if attesting to a semantic death drive and to haunted memory. Newspaper clippings, crime-scene pictures, binders of family snapshots or tourist photographs, corporate files and libraries, Bible codes, encrypted documents, video surveillance clips, scars, and of course tattoos record—even if they do not always spell out—nightmare crimes. Larsson’s novel mentions a “death book” that Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) fills with research on his potential victims, but in a way the whole story is an elaborate memento mori.
One question here is what happens when the archons— the public officials that, according to Derrida, are “accorded the hermeneutic right and competence” (2)—go mad. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of Sweden’s ruling families slides, in five generations, from industrialists (Henrik Vanger proudly notes that his grandfather “stitched the country together”) to monsters, in the form of Gottfried Vanger (Harriet’s father), who is a fascist, murderous, family-molesting salesman and his golf-playing CEO son, Martin, whose own penchant for thrill-killing makes him a legacy serial murderer. The business rival of the Vanger family is Hans- Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg), a figure the novel calls “a despicable stock market speculator.” As a mafia financier, he has blood on his hands indirectly, and he is totally unscrupulous, manipulating the press by creating a phony archive of bogus sources to lure Blomkvist into a legal trap. Fincher’s movie taps into contemporary fears about the unchecked power of global gangster capitalists to dictate the news and so corrupt the archives.
Another character, Salander’s officially appointed State guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), sexually assaults her at his office and then rapes her at his home, in a disturbing sequence filmed as the horror it is, after the camera initially retreats behind a closed door like a frightened witness turning away from a crime. The character of Bjurman also suggests a world in which the threat of violence against women may be ubiquitous, the state offering no protection from male sexual predators in the family or the corporation. The literal translation of the Swedish title of Larsson’s novel and of Neils Arden Oplev’s 2009 film adaptation, Men Who Hate Women, overshadows all three versions of the story. Bjurman’s plan to control Salander relies on his role as administrator of her state records. To possess her file is to own her, he mistakenly believes: but she retaliates by creating a mixed-media counter-archive in the contrasting forms of a spycam video of the rape and a tattoo across his chest: “I am a rapist pig.” The politics of the archive are decisively altered, although in a minor change from the novel characteristic of Fincher’s direction, Salander mutes the sound while screening the footage for Bjurman in a revenge sequence that is equally brutal but categorically different in tone.
How to turn archives against rulers? Blomkvist’s approach involves investigative journalism—interviews with potential witnesses, visits to newspaper vaults, and other apparent dead ends akin to the journalistic research in Zodiac. Lisabeth’s more innovative strategy involves the vigilantism of computer hacking, portrayed as the royal road to the political unconscious in its ability to tap into treasure troves of incriminating documents. The title of Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium, seems a joke about print being behind the times in the twenty-first century, but despite that his path is increasingly toward the digital. At one point, the now-freelance snoop recapitulates a kind of miniaturized history of moving pictures. He has collected and scanned a series of still photographs, arranging them into a very basic cinematograph (what Larsson’s novel calls “a jerky silent film” and Steven Zaillian’s screenplay also describes as “a kind of electronic flip-book”) that can be enhanced through digital manipulation until it reveals new information—eventually even the identity of a killer—that could not be gleaned previously using older methods of investigation alone. Blomkvist gets uneasily used to Salander’s deployment of illegal computer surveillance and eventually abandons any reservations.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo portrays a righteous alliance between journalism and hacking, old and young. Salander must search through paper documents—what Martin calls “old crap”—in order to solve the mystery, just as Blomkvist uses scanners to transform photographic images into harvestable data. This is a thriller that boils down to file conversion; the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman noted that it inverts the fuzzy logic of both Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup and the permanently scrambled footage of the Zapruder film (www.villagevoice.com, December 21, 2011). The sexual union between the protagonist-investigators literalizes this idea of a complementary relationship between the “before” and “after” generations of computerization. Although the movie destabilizes this romance it suggests the potential for nonhierarchical relationships as an alternative to the logic of the family tree or the corporate ladder. Salander “tethers” her computer to a mobile phone and tethers with Blomkvist in a similarly ad hoc manner.
Fincher has directed two movies back-to-back that navigate digital culture, yet the difference between The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is significant and goes beyond character gender. In the former, a young genius hacker disappears into the void of corporate vanity established by his mentors, while in the latter a young genius hacker fights against unlimited exploitation by private interests in a manner that more resembles the activities of the Anonymous group— though Salander’s lucrative final hack surpasses anything on the books to date. (Her activities also seem like a high-tech version of the anti-corporate mischief of Project Mayhem in Fincher’s Fight Club, in which the headquarters of credit card companies are laid low.) Sasha Mitchell, on the accelera8or.com website, put it well in calling Salander “a morphable, hacktivist samurai, enhanced by metal, for cosmetic effect and/or simply to exist as more efficacious meat in a world controlled by abusive, self-interested CEOs.”
Subverting the gender roles of mainstream movies, Craig plays Blomkvist not as a literary James Bond but as a hapless beta-male with a penchant for waistcoats, cardigans, and cups of tea. (“Useless fucking detective,” Martin sneers at Blomkvist; he’s caught him running away from his house because he slips and stumbles down a hill.) Faced with the revelation that Salander has hacked his personal computer, he brings her breakfast and offers her a job. Blomkvist’s utter lack of machismo—at one point he pauses to touch paws with a cat before submitting to his married girlfriend’s summons to bed—contrasts with the sexual violence perpetrated by many of the other male characters. Blomkvist and Salander blur boundaries between movie stereotypes of male and female roles as much as between old and new media. After nearly getting shot in the head with a hunting rifle (he has become prey to sport with), Blomkvist flees and grows hysterical, while Salander performs home surgery on his head wound with dental floss sterilized by vodka and calms him down using sex.
Salander is a sort of emo-jedi antiheroine. A bisexual hunter who preys on predators, she is not the average female lead. Resembling a hybrid of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), she is another Fincher cold case. She carries a taser in her back pocket and wears a T-shirt that reads “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK.” Perhaps she has about her something of Valerie Solanas, whose 1967 SCUM Manifesto revels in damaged goods and recommends “violent bitches” who would “ram an icepick” up the backside of a man; Salander’s retributive tattoo artistry against her government minder has the same kind of spirit. Trauma has hardened Salander’s shell but failed to incapacitate her. Told by Blomkvist to grab Martin’s pistol and not let the killer escape, Salander first calmly checks the weapon’s chamber for safety reasons and then files an exceedingly polite personal request: “May I kill him?”
Fincher’s female protagonists are few in number—Jodie Foster in Panic Room (2002) and Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3 (1992)—but highly effective. “She’s different,” explains Salander’s boss, Dragan Armansky (Goran Visnjic). Fincher’s camera introduces Salander with great care, at first showing her from a distance on a motorcycle, wearing a black helmet, her face glimpsed briefly through office window blinds, from profile shots, and an odd angle between her ear and the back of her head, then finally across a conference table. Only then does the camera go closer. Mara reveals Salander through bleak looks photographed on a subway car, quickly vanishing smiles, and stressed-out puffs of cigarettes. Some reviewers found a robotic blankness in Mara’s Salander but that seems inadequate. “You look nice,” Blomkvist tells her near the end of the film; she makes a face and notes that it is Christmastime again. The nonsequitur is not offered because she has failed to hear or understand him. She is equipped with a photographic memory and gains access to locked buildings by “phone-phreaking,” parsing the tones of the door code and filing the numerical equivalents of the sounds. Salander hears everything, misses nothing, but responds only in her own way.
Larsson’s novels struck a chord by combining a goth girl with a new sort of gothic novel, one set amid twenty-first-century horrors like the gleaming, security-door-protected torture chamber in Martin’s basement. In the novel, the house is decorated with “reproductions of posters of the sort found in IKEA,” while Harald Vanger, Henrik’s Nazi brother, contemptuously quips that his family has a “thin shiny veneer like an IKEA table.” Fight Club, of course, has a famous IKEA furniture sequence that maps shopping onto sociopathic violence. All the versions of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo are troubled by a sense that beneath a cleanly designed modern exterior lurks obscene aggression. Salander subverts the concept of the traditional waif in a gothic novel, wandering lost in a maze of heavily sexualized menace. Certainly the connection between sexual and economic exploitation lies at the core of the tale. Larsson’s novel (though not this movie) opens Martin’s “death book” and finds that it contains his shopping lists of working women, including corporate secretaries, reception staff at hotels, and waitresses encountered on business trips. An immigrant prostitute named Irina—”just another girl,” Martin calls her—numbers among his victims. “While you sat and ate dinner with me,” he reveals to Blomkvist when the latter is himself hanging from a hook, “she was locked up in the cage down here.” The comment has the structure of a dark parable involving clueless consumers, evil managers, and an unregulated global service industry.
An IKEA veneer differentiates the environment of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from its Transylvanian counterpart in Dracula. One element of Stoker’s novel—itself archive-feverish in its presentation of narrative as an arranged series of found objects—that tends to be forgotten in movie adaptations is its emphasis on earlier kinds of new technology, its ancient horrors reactivated in a universe of train timetables, telegrams, newspaper clippings, phonographically recorded diaries, and independently minded female typists like Mina Harker, one of whose nicknames is “the train fiend.” Mina’s betrothed, Jonathan Harker, gets stuck in Dracula’s castle, while Salander’s lover become trapped in Martin’s mountaintop condo, essentially a giant glass coffin. In his book Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Sam Halliday compares Mina’s gift for telepathy in Dracula to a kind of eavesdropping radio receiver. By contrast, Salander’s clairvoyance through hacking is virtual and literal, just as Martin’s evil is secular. Yet while Mina’s victimhood is passive—”unclean!” she cries out after being attacked by the Count—Salander more resembles a good vampire, an undead riot grrrl capable not only of destroying tormentors by herself but also rescuing her flailing male companion, who in this movie plays a role much more like the ingénue. She is much more than a Mina-like über-typist but it is true that she does her best work with her hands, whether she is breaking into private computers using her keyboard or wielding a vampire-killing stake in the form of a golf club.
The novels of Stoker and Larsson both champion the possibility of friendships between the sexes as an antidote to exploitative sexuality. “Little girl,” says Dracula’s American cowboy, Quincy P. Morris, to Lucy Westerna after failing to win her hand in marriage, “your honesty and pluck have made me a friend, and that’s rarer than a lover.” Somewhat like Morris, Fincher’s movie does insist that an adult woman can be called a “girl.” Yet in its various iterations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rejects the notion that traumas can make anyone who suffers them unclean. Fincher’s version removes a question from Blomkvist to Salander near the end of the novel: “Can you define the word ‘friendship’ for me?” But it does feature Salander repeatedly describing her occasional employer and sometime sexual partner as a friend. In one of her most memorable scenes, Salander sits smoking with one foot resting oddly in what appears to be Blomkvist’s kitchen sink. She informs him, suddenly and spontaneously, “I like working with you.” Her comment invokes a tone of affectionate comradeship between freelancers about shared labors that put them on a relative basis of equality, a rare moment in this world, or in most of Fincher’s other movies, for that matter. Blomkvist’s reply is similarly amicable: “I like working with you, too.”