I haven’t read the Stieg Larsson books or seen the Swedish-language film adaptations, so you’ll get no comparisons here (GOD, I’M SO IGNORANT!), but as rendered by David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is basically an above-average murder mystery with a sloppy ending, mostly unnoteworthy — but for one thing: Lisbeth Salander, who, as a character, is damn near groundbreaking, and no, dummy, it’s not because she dresses like suicide girl Barbie. With Salander, Fincher/Larsson do right by “strong female heroin” in a way that movies have been f*cking up for probably 100 years. Then they totally screw it up again, but we’ll get to that later.
Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a recently-disgraced journalist (loser of a high-profile libel suit by a wealthy industrialist) who gets hired by another wealthy industrialist, this one retired, played by Christopher Plummer, to investigate a decades-old murder. Plummer comes from a family of kooky ex-Nazis (Stieg Larsson was himself a journalist who investigated right-wing extremists), almost all of whom still live on a sleepy island in the north of Sweden (with shades of Wicker Man, Insomnia). Plummer wants Craig to find out how his niece disappeared into thin air one day at a family reunion back in the 60s. In exchange, Plummer promises to provide Craig some dirt on the industrialist who disgraced him. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual, antisocial ward of the state with a photographic memory, works with a firm of investigators. She comes into the picture first as the operative who does the background check on Craig for Plummer, but soon she and Craig find themselves working together on the murder. OOH, DOES ANYONE ELSE SMELL AN UNLIKELY PARTNERSHIP? I’ll be your Danny Glover. Just let me get my merkin.
Family secrets! Wealthy benefactors! Taunting serial killers! Political intrigue! It’s basic stuff, but mostly well done. The first two-thirds of the film have that deliberate, non-gimmicky, slow-build pacing of Zodiac, probably Fincher’s most solid film (Fight Club was ten times more provocative, but it also had a disappointing, semi-nonsensical ending). It’s a hard-boiled mystery, well-told, with a solid ensemble cast. At least until the end, when the bad guy turns out to be a half-assed, mostly motiveless, token evil white guy straight out of a Law and Order episode. GRRR, I’M A WHITE PATRIARCHAL OLIGARCH, THE ONLY THING THAT GETS ME HARD IS OPPRESSING THE DOWNTRODDEN! If Dragon Tatoo doesn’t shit the bed at the end, it at least farts it up pretty bad. The last third is almost a total disappointment, without even taking into account how badly you’ll probably have to pee by then, considering the almost two hour and forty minute running time.
But let’s be honest, we wouldn’t be talking about it, and it wouldn’t have sold 27 million books and spawned two separate film franchises if it was just an above-average murder mystery. Basic cable is lousy with those. It’s the Salander character that sets it apart. Because finally, there’s a female hero who isn’t just a male hero in disguise, indistinguishable but for a bow slapped on her head like Ms. Pacman. The female protagonists we’re used to seeing in movies like Colombiana, Hanna, Salt, etc. (to limit it just to a few that came out in the last year or two) are just traditional male protagonists with the gender swapped (Salt was even originally written for a dude, and was made with few changes). They overcome obstacles the way male heroes would, with fistfights and parkour. Aside from the fact that watching a 100-pound girl beat up 200-pound henchmen just isn’t believable, it isn’t that satisfying to watch a chick beat dudes by out-duding them. It’d be like the Allies defeating the Axis by being better at Fascism. The old “girls can do anything boys can do” narrative is fundamentally flawed because it assumes girls want to do everything boys do. It basically starts with an expectation of inferiority, and refutes it in a token, anecdotal way. Tattoos and piercings and silly suicide girl anti-establishment clichés aside, Salander is at least a lot more cleverly written than the usual ass-kicking skank in tights. (Freudians could read some strap-on imagery into Salander’s use of a dildo as a weapon and her choice of a speedy, phallic motorcycle, but I’m going to call it coincidence). She’s rare and transcendent in that she spends the entire film as someone who doesn’t seek or require validation from men (or anyone, for that matter).
All that would be great, but it also makes final scene that much more unfortunate. SPOILER BREAK! LEAVE NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PIECE!
The final scene basically takes everything that was compelling and different about the Salander character, crumples it up, and takes a dump on its merkin. After an overreaching sequence (a glossed-over heist-ish scene that’s sort of the opposite of the grounded, slow-build first and second act) in which Salander uses her computer-hacking $killz to come into a great deal of money, she uses her cash to buy Daniel Craig’s character (whom she matter-of-factly seduced a few scenes earlier in one of the film’s best sequences) a fancy jacket. But, when she takes it to him for the expected happy reunion scene, she sees him back with his old girlfriend. She chucks the jacket in a dumpster in a huff, and rides off on her motorcycle. Fin. Uhhh… was that supposed to be empowering? How do you take a character whom you took great pains to build into this independent, empowering hero in the first two acts and turn her into just another woman scorned? It destroys everything you’ve built. They build Salander into this hard luck case who refused to be a victim and sought sexual satisfaction in an unconventional, unapologetic way, but the way they end it, it turns out she’s really just a simple reactionary, falling for the first dude who isn’t a total dick to her (which is also wildly far-fetched, given this girl’s history, but that’s another story). All of that and it turns out she’s just a victim after all? The usual wounded-dove bullshit? What a disappointment. The enduring impression of Dragon Tattoo is of film that hints promisingly at being something special, but ultimately settles for being mostly mundane.