Confession time: the primary reason I’m logging my thoughts about the 2009 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (as it’s known in English-speaking countries) on my blog now is because I want to have a reference for later, when the David Fincher version comes out. I’m one of those fascinated-by-the-process apologists who refuses to get my knickers in a twist every time a movie I like is remade. Part of it is exhaustion. It’s very tiring to get thoroughly worked up every time Hollywood decides to “screw up” a beloved “classic.” Because it happens a lot. Then there’s the fact that sometimes — once in a very rare while — the remake is superior to the original. If not superior, sometimes interesting as a failure. Or just interesting because it’s substantially different. Or interesting to see how a film can be redone, nearly shot for shot, for no other purpose than the fact that lazy, American audiences are too stupid and lazy to read subtitles. Or the fact that lazy, American studios and distributors don’t bother to market foreign or older films very aggressively.
By the same token, it intrigues me when world-class filmmakers have their choice of any project, and choose to do something that has been done before. And done well. And done recently. Maybe David Fincher just thrives on the challenge. Maybe he responded to the original movie so strongly he just had to exorcise his excitement with his own version. I love Fincher. I should be excited, right?
Well, no. Every once in a while, even I — the self-identified fascinated-by-the-process apologist — grimace a bit when I see that a certain film is being remade. In this particular case, it’s not because the Swedish original, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), is an untouchable Venus di Milo of artistic craft. Rather, it’s because I think it kind of sucks, and, frankly, I think the material is beneath a man of Fincher’s talent.
Perhaps the emphasis in that last sentence should be on “kind of,” rather than “sucks.” Män som hatar kvinnor is a serviceable thriller in the vein of Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s the problem. It’s the kind of film that feels like it was made by people who saw and admired Se7en and Silence of the Lambs, but didn’t understand what made those films work. Dour, gray and black color schemes, ominous musical noodling, and edgy, possibly unbalanced antiheroes are de rigeur these days. You’re just as likely to find a competent serial killer thriller on weekly television as you are the multiplex. For the last twenty years, there has been a veritable cornucopia of likeminded thrillers: Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, Taking Lives, Suspect Zero, the Hannibal Lecter spinoffs, etc. On television, you can tune in to Wire in the Blood and get a forensic headshrinker fix, with production values that are comparable to any feature film. After all this, along comes Män som hatar kvinnor, with its tough anti-heroine, its damaged protagonist, and some truly heinous violence (both onscreen and off). Compared to the deafening hype, the film itself is barely a fart in a windstorm.
Somehow, the titular “girl with the dragon tattoo” (well, titular in the English translation) Lisbeth Salander has emerged as… well, what should we call her? An icon? I don’t think she’ll be enduring enough for iconic status. Trend? A character can’t be a trend. Meme? Maybe. She’s the female Jack Bauer, if Jack Bauer was the lead character of The Lost Boys. There’s been a lot of hubbub over her ingenuity and agency, as if the novelty of a tough woman being a lead character in a warped murder mystery was something totally novel. Sure, she dresses like a punk. Her moral system is a bit anarchistic. But the only thing that really sets her apart, as far as I can tell, is the kind of abuse the film is willing to put her through on screen.
Combating the image of the prudish Christian is one of the minor goals of this blog, but I will admit that when it comes to some things, I can’t shuck my inner prude. However, I do maintain that there’s a difference between being unflinching and being tasteless. Män som hatar kvinnor is a clear example of the latter.
Lisbeth is raped twice in the first act of the film. The first time, she’s coerced into performing oral sex on her court-appointed guardian. It’s an ugly, uncomfortable scene. The second assault occurs soon after, and it’s hideously brutal. Lisbeth is beaten, tied down, and anally raped by the same man. Later, after Lisbeth exacts vengeance upon him, the character literally plays no part in the rest of the film.
This character — a lawyer — comes into play in the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Whereas he is completely irrelevant to plot or character development in the first film, in the second he is promoted to the status of MacGuffin. When Lisbeth returns to Stockholm to put the fear of God into him after having spent a year abroad, she winds up implicated in his murder. Once again, the plot is set in motion by sexual abuse. Almost the very first thing we see in the film is a flashback to Lisbeth’s horrific rape. The rest of the mystery plot is set in motion by an investigation into sex trafficking. Seedy and discomfiting, the important real-world issue of 21st century slavery is mostly just a pretext to carry the characters along on a tide of righteous indignation and justifiable vigilanteism.
In other words, the narrative “necessity” of the rape scenes in Män som hatar kvinnor is a lie. They’re calculated to give the film an aura of angry, tactile edginess that isn’t particularly convincing — it’s contrived. Instead of playing up its pulpy roots, the story tamps them down, preferring a glossy sheen of respectability in aesthetics and pandering to the progressive left’s favorite bogeymen: white collar criminals, fascists, anti-feminists, homophobes, etc. It’s a sleazy, gussied-up revenge flick for the NPR set; a right-wing fantasy for comfortably middle-class leftists. At least Neil Jordan had the good sense to check his moral indignation at the door when he made The Brave One. But then, Jordan has always been comfortable using genre tropes to get across nuanced messages, and Jodie Foster is a good enough actor not to censure her character through her performance.
The truth is, Män som hatar kvinnor is a competently composed thriller. Not outstanding in any way, but somehow it has accrued an international following quite unlike most similarly-toned films from the last several years. A big part of the reason I feel compelled to comment on it at length (as opposed to just checking it off on iCheckMovies and leaving it at that) is in the spirit of good, old-fashioned contrariness. Armond White’s terse takedown of the film was brilliant and (as usual) out of step with most of his peers. (“Oplev’s true estimate of Lisabeth shows when her final self-actualization resembles a high-priced hooker.” Ka-pow!) Being Armond White, his dismissal of the film was largely ignored by both people inclined to agree with him and by those who frequently disagree. Perhaps he would have had better luck getting attention with his smack talk had The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo been ported Stateside by Neill Blomkamp.
In a surprise twist, though, White was joined in panning the film by the likes of A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Michael Phillips, Anthony Lane, Nick Schager, and Ed Gonzalez. Revealingly, most of the comments on the Rotten Tomatoes review page seem to converge on the “rotten” reviews. I haven’t tallied them rigorously, so I can’t be sure, but the comments I did read seemed to go something like this, “How are you even a critic? Stop reviewing movies. This movie was good, you’re so obviously wrong,” without actually bothering to illustrate how, precisely, the critics were wrong.
By the time I got around to seeing the film, it had already made its theatrical run overseas and in the U.S.; commenting on a film this popular at such a late date isn’t just an analysis of the film, but a postmortem on its popular reception. Most of the time, I don’t think it’s fair to hold a film’s fandom against it, so to speak. In some cases it is somewhat illuminating, though, such as when a perennially popular classic novel (like Pride and Prejudice) is adapted for the umpteenth time. You have to concede that in a case like that, the filmmakers are practically begging us to notice what is so new and different about their version that the others just didn’t do. In the same way, the bandwagon popularity of something like the Stieg Larsson books and their film versions is something worthy of comment in its own right. How much of the film is constructed to please “fans,” as opposed to being constructed purely for the sake of making a good movie?
Look at the result and judge for yourself. What I see is a jumble of tropes and conspiracy thriller conventions, each one catering to the vicarious wish-fulfillment fantasies of white, middle-aged liberal men who hate rich people, law enforcement officials, and any political viewpoint to the right of Che Guevara, but love butch, anarchist lesbians who have been victimized by white, rich fascists (that is to say, conservatives) — and, as it turns out, will screw the hell out of white, middle-aged liberal men if those white, middle-aged liberal men prove to be virtuous enough! I imagine that Män som hatar kvinnor is to Stieg Larsson as Kill Bill is to Quentin Tarantino: an autobiography of the artist’s interior self. But this doesn’t explain the film’s wide appeal.
What is appealing about the film is probably rooted in the construction. Shows like Cold Case (as White mentions), Criminal Minds, Bones, Wire in the Blood, Law & Order: SVU, Castle, and any number of other TV programs are in the business of telling mystery stories. Some of them are more sober in tone than others, and some focus on the more twisted aspects of human nature. As in the litany of movies I invoked at the outset, there is a certain mode, a certain procedure by which these stories are advanced. The framing is usually straightforward but mobile, a bit fluid (usually becoming more serpentine the closer the characters get to evil, as when tracking through a basement-turned-torture chamber, or a tossed apartment, or a crime scene), with time in the feature films being spent on characters walking or driving while discussing expository information. Colors tend to be more drab, more dark, and saturated to boot. This ain’t Dorothy’s Oz, but it might be Tom Fontana’s. There is almost always the “Wall of Clues,” in which string, markers, polaroids, Post-Its, photocopied pages of text are tacked, taped, or otherwise pinned to a wall, closet door, window, or corkboard. The central investigative unit is almost always comprised of a man and a woman, both conventionally attractive, most often complementary in terms of personality, a mismatch on paper, but an unstoppable crime-solving duo in practice. Near the end of the narrative, one half of this duo will often be kidnapped or otherwise separated from the rest of the team, held hostage by the evildoer(s) or perhaps facing them in a routine situation, unaware of the danger as the other crimefighters race to warn/rescue them. In most cases, the story attempts to offer some sort of unexpected twist, revealing that the identity of the killer (if previously unknown) is someone unexpected; failing that, it may turn out that the killer is even sicker than previously thought, frequently bragging/outlining in detail his or her exploits.
Mystery thrillers aren’t big on dissolves as a means of scene transition, unless it’s within the context of a “library montage,” in which a character conducts a bunch of solitary research, which isn’t terribly cinematic in and of itself, which is why the montage attempts to form a kind of mini-opus, often set to an ominous musical score. The music in these stories tends to be either classical or operatic, and lately infused with a bit of an electro punch. Though laden by expository dialogue (inevitable in a murder mystery, where motives and backgrounds are hashed out by the investigative characters), every effort is made to keep things in motion. That’s why characters (or cameras) rarely sit still while debating the clues. Continuous music propels one scene into another. And the plots often get outlandish in an effort to throw something (or a combination of things) at the viewer that have not been seen before — at least, not seen in this particular order.
Is it any wonder, then, that Män som hatar kvinnor essentially Godwins itself halfway through? The inclusion of Nazis confirms the film as a version of The Aristocrats as told by Dick Cheney: overlong, tasteless, packed with the most heinous things imaginable, and delivered with total lack of humor. Not to mention a bit creepy in all the wrong ways.
The way the film concludes its Nazi tangent (which turns out to be one of the most protracted red herrings in this kind of film) seems to indicate that it’s trying to say something about the heritability of evil, but this idea isn’t fleshed out in any meaningful way. (I guess anybody with a Nazi serial killing rapist daddy is bound to grow up a little on the skeevy side.) It’s possible that this is more developed in the novel and the original television version of the film, but judging from the handling of the rest of the material, including more character moments wouldn’t help, because the character moments that exist are fairly flat.
Just as the film’s primary villain was turned into a serial killing rapist by his messed-up father, the film’s primary heroine was turned into a lesbian, vengeful goth by her messed-up daddy — and, presumably, just about every other male authority figure in her life, barring her first guardian. Lisbeth is a product of the kind of family background that would turn even Precious into Chuck Norris. While I know that, in real life, far too many children endure despicable abuse at the hands of parents and other adults, Lisbeth is too much of a fictional construct for that to be taken to heart. Sure, she’s got a messed-up background, but instead of being totally destroyed by it, she turns into an 90-lbs. Conan the Destroyer, a person with all the smarts, tenacity, and ruthlessness to be the perfect avenger. Lisbeth is no more realistic than Kick-Ass’s Hit Girl. As for the journalist, Blomkvist? He’s a social justice crusader. He has no discernible flaws or personality outside of a commitment to finding the truth. (Does sleeping with a married woman really count as a “flaw” in the 21st century?) He’s a paunchy, metrosexual version of Clark Kent. He doesn’t need a background, because he’s the Hero.
If the film had played up its genre tropes a little more, it might have gotten away with the thumbnail sketchiness of its characters, but this is where the film most notably fails. There is only one really breathtaking sequence in the film, and Anthony Lane nails it in his review:
“Even patches of dogged research are whipped into unlikely fervor. The most elegant of these is Blomkvist’s scanning of old negatives: grainy shots of Harriet, in the crowd at a parade, which, when blown up and placed in quick sequence, suddenly assume the shape of a mini-movie. I am a sucker for these smaller narratives, crouched and concealed within the larger quest; the problem comes as they start to swell and delay the Vanger plot.”
Unfortunately, the Vanger plot — Blomkvist trying to find the long-lost niece of a dying old industrialist — goes off in multiple false directions. It brings together our two leads, and there are many scenes of shadowy rooms and recollections of sadistic episodes from the past, but it’s all filmed with such… banality. Nothing in the film remotely comes close to the unsettling climax of that mini-movie, as Harriet stares across the street while everyone else turns the other way. It’s ghostly, mysterious, and, unlike the rest of the film, possesses the air of the inexplicable. It’s an enigmatic moment wrapped in a mystery that is perfectly happy to offer no ambiguities, moral or historical. That moment is later explained, but it doesn’t lose any power in hindsight. There’s no sense of operatic style to match the operatic scope of the ludicrous plot. If you’re going to use Nazis, at least use some Wagner!
In The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme orchestrates Hannibal Lecter’s escape with ghoulish panache. It’s a sequence that doesn’t really need to be seen in order to advance the main plotline, which is about another killer entirely, but Demme grasps the essence of Lecter’s thematic importance to the film. He’s another male authority figure that uses Clarice Starling and Senator Martin for his own ends; people die — horribly — and he conducts the entire thing like Leopold Stokowski. He’s a monster who identifies intimately with the trimmings of haute culture, thus implicating haute culture and male authority. He’s terrifying because he’s so damn charismatic and undeniably brilliant; the camera loves him; it pulls back in awe of his masterful crucifixion tableau: a disemboweled guard strung up on Lecter’s empty cell. Critics who found Lambs a little bit too heavily in collusion with the paternalism it was supposedly attacking were right to be leery. But Demme’s style was too in your face to be ignored; if you caught on that his style was problematic, it’s because the style was meant to be noticed and critiqued. There is no similar awareness of style in Män som hatar kvinnor. Oplev films the story uncritically, like an overenthusiastic crime reporter, giving you all the sensational details but demonstrating no awareness of context or taste.
Which isn’t the same thing as incompetence. Män som hatar kvinnor could just as easily be a cologne advert as a film about Nazi rapist-murderers, and as an example of old school narrative filmmaking, with shaky-cam and art-house pretension totally dispensed with, it does what it needs to do. People who are mainly attracted to the incremental revelation of mystery plots anchored by one-note would-be icons have obviously fallen over each other praising this film, while others who are simply diverted by digestible, attractive aesthetics and the kind of narrative one-upsmanship practiced by serial entertainments like the similarly brutal 24 can find the time spent watching the film simply melting away.
For me, though, the idea of such a brutal, exploitative film being a digestible, attractive piece of entertainment is a problem. It’s pulp masquerading as serious, issue-oriented cinema, and I don’t think any film with such a fixation on the trappings of debasement is entitled to lecture me about the moral decay of Western civilization. To me, films like this exploit the sensationalism of moral decay — celebrating it as source material — while berating its viewers for letting it happen. It’s a conundrum, and it’s not a new one to this film; it’s an old dilemma, and Män som hatar kvinnor takes no steps to solve it.
On a broader level, the problem this film presents for me as a viewer is one that I think faces most thoughtful people across the political and religious spectrum. Humankind has a fascination with violence. This is indisputable. The levels that each of us is able to tolerate on an individual basis varies, and most individuals seem to have wildly inconsistent standards by which they evaluate a film. The same person who blasts away at The Machine Girl, for instance, may have quite enjoyed the similarly violent Sin City, or the even more violent Hellsing: Ultimate OVAs. (And by “same person” I mean Yours Truly.) It’s a blatant hypocrisy, but it’s one for which I can find no easy solution. What’s the difference between one kind of cartoonish violence and another?
In the same way, when I take the film to task for pandering as “a right-wing fantasy for comfortably middle-class leftists,” I beg the question: would it be better if it pandered to comfortable middle-class rightists? My intent was to illustrate that the film’s problem is its pandering, not the people to whom it panders. But since I made such a big deal about analyzing the target audience, why should I make that distinction now? I’m not a white, middle-aged liberal, but I suppose that there are plenty of black, young women who aren’t particularly partisan who may have enjoyed the film. Perhaps it’s just as big a hit in India as it is in the U.S. I don’t know these things. All I know is that the violence bothered me, and it is my impression that it is the film that has an inconsistent value system. But I have one, too. Where does that leave me? (And by extension, us…?)
This is a question to which I’ll return often. For now, let’s consider the fact that this Swedish film has been a crossover hit around the world. This is rare. It is a hard R-rated film with heavy doses of sexual violence. That a film with this kind of content should be so profitable is even more rare. In my opinion, the film does not offer an aesthetic or storyline that is particularly exceptional, apart from the dullness of the former and the ridiculousness of the latter. This goes some way toward explaining why it was so accessible to mainstream audiences (aesthetically, despite the language barrier and the “art house” stigma attached to foreign films), and perhaps why it was deemed to be more memorable (even M. Night Shyamalan passed out trying to keep up with all the twists). I don’t like admitting that perhaps mediocrity succeeds precisely because it panders so unambitiously, but there you go.
I’m still not sure that’s The Problem, though.
Earlier, I asserted that Män som hatar kvinnor is beneath David Fincher. I still believe that to be true. I’ll admit another thing, though. Maybe what I’m dreading — apart from the fact that the American remake of this film may turn out to be just as mediocre as the original — is the fact that, in adapting it to an American setting, the remake will starkly illustrate the kinds of aesthetic hypocrisies we have all the more clearly. It’s one thing to snipe away at a film for its failings, but if I’m having trouble building an airtight case for the exploitative nature of the original film, will anything change whether the new film is virtually shot-for-shot the same or completely different? If Fincher and Steven Zaillian remove the rape scenes, will the film be any less tasteless? Worst of all, I will have had a rather substantial amount of time between the release of the original film on DVD and the new film in the theater to consider and refine my perspective on its use of violence and human evil. If my perspective hasn’t deepened; if I haven’t resolved my internal hypocrisies, if I go see the new film knowing full well what to expect, in what capacity am I any better than the filmmakers?
This is the kind of ambiguity that the film completely ignores, but it might be a huge part of why it has been so resonant. Even if it’s cheap, it strikes some uncomfortable chords, perhaps in genuinely repugnant ways. But if the film is a response to the popular appetite and critical responses that don’t offer consistency regarding this kind of material, I have a hard time looking forward to the remake. The advent of a remake simply means that our culture still hasn’t matured enough to resolve these questions, and we’d rather endure the onslaught of exploitation a second time, in our own tongue, rather than cultivate a better, more consistent approach. Maybe I’m not looking forward to the Fincher version because I just don’t like what evaluating such an imminently marketable and aesthetically accessible remake will make me think about myself. ☕