27 December 2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Dir. David Fincher, 2011, US) - Nordic Noir

Like with every David Fincher film, there is so much to say about the approach taken and also the wider context. Prolific is not a term used lightly when referencing the work of David Fincher. He is a director who works at a leisurely pace, picking and choosing film projects very carefully. This of course has been proven in the success he has enjoyed over the years. Unlike The Social Network which came as somewhat of a surprise when Fincher was announced as director, the same cannot be said of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s best selling crime novels titled the Millennium series have become some of the most widely read fiction. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo was the first in a series of books which have already been adapted for the screen by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev. The film was widely acclaimed as a successful adaptation of the novel and performed well at the box office. Larsson’s work has been pooled under a recent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction, television and cinema dubbed Nordic noir. It was inevitable that Hollywood would present their own adaptation and the dark themes at play in the story fit perfectly in the noirish oeuvre of Fincher. To be honest, I am not a fan of Hollywood setting out to remake films which have already been successful with critics and audiences alike. For many fans of the novel, this Hollywood version may seem like a pointless adaptation when the Swedish film is such a brilliantly directed thriller. However, I have not seen the original film and neither have I read any of the novels. So I approached this adaptation with a mind set unclouded by previous literary or cinematic experiences of the novel. Nonetheless, my interest was primarily with Fincher as a mainstream American auteur. The narrative is very complicated and tricky to explain without having to go into details about various plot points so I’m going to focus on thematic, technical and genre aspects which I found particularly interesting.

Before I move on, I will say that the narrative is strongly reminiscent of classic film noirs and uses the classic binary oppositional conflict between the past vs. present, the old vs. the new and faith vs. modernity. Thematically, and given Larsson’s experience as a journalist, the film in many ways offers Fincher with one of his most ideologically complex narratives involving sexual violence towards women, the perversion of the extended family, the corrupt ruling elite, history and ancestry, patriarchy, and sadism. We could label such themes as epic and universal, especially in European society, as they trace a lineage through the Nazis and World War II to the accumulation of wealth by an elite set of industrialist families. It is a fatalistic and doomed ancestry, which passes down power, only to be faced with a generation of children who are desperate to escape the tyranny of their past crimes. If the past is something many of the younger generation wish to mask then a futurist like Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is on a mission to uncover the past and hold it up to the present. Lisbeth is a modern day equivalent of a private investigator but she is someone who uses technology as a means of uncovering the truth. It is an electronic truth which can easily be erased with the touch of a button or fabricated to manifest a specific ideological agenda. Lisbeth’s morally dubious computer hacking restates her marginal position in wider society – she is a loner seeking a sense of belonging but also desperate for a human connection that would in a strange sort of way abolish her potency as a feminist icon. In many ways, Lisbeth is transformed into a guardian and protector and it is her distinctive Goth identity that pushes her character into the sphere of comic book anti-heroes who punish the male transgressors that she comes across in society.

Thematically, what also links the past to the present is that the sexual violence towards women is both continuous and brutal. The rape of Lisbeth by Nils Bjurman, a monstrous lawyer, is depicted graphically and it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable (I guess that was the intention) but I would still argue that it might have been much more powerful to have simply cut away, not because such sexual violence should not be represented in a film, but because depicting violence in such graphic details can be seen as exploitative and an easy way of manipulating audience emotions. However, I think this is a film that could have easily trimmed away such darker elements in order to maximise its commercial appeal but those involved in this project were brave enough to remain faithful to the original source material. Nevertheless, Lisbeth’s rape is not filmed in an exploitative or sensationalist way because her character has a voice and a vengeful response that controls the narrative. Her violent retribution may show her transgressing the social order but the fact that most of the men in the film are shown to be exploiting women for their own needs makes her position dubiously justifiable and sympathetic. Lisbeth’s position of self defence echoes the past, merging with the actions of Harriet – both Lisbeth and Harriet are victims of a twisted and corrupt patriarchy that seems perpetual.

If Lisbeth fits the persona of the angry young woman then journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) seems more like a traditional opportunistic middle class alpha male. Although Blomkvist hires Lisbeth to aid his investigation into the disappearance of a young girl and grisly murders committed in the past, he does purely as a means of also reeking revenge on powerful businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. In many ways, Blomkvist takes on the job of writing Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) memoirs so he can seek redemption for his failed investigation into Wennerstrom’s corrupt dealings. Blomkvist may appear to be a noble knight with a love for old journalistic values of transparency and the truth but fundamentally he is working to restore his male pride. In the final moments of the film, Lisbeth’s judgement equates Blomkvist with the laws of patriarchy – he may have appeared to be different than rest of the men in Lisbeth’s life but his gaze is singular, linear and predictably safe. What separates Lisbeth from Blomkvist is her fearlessness – death does not come into her life equation but it does for Blomkvist who does fear his own mortality.

Blomkvist’s investigation into the Vanger dynasty uncovers a narrative that stretches back to the 1940s and an involvement with fascism. The Vanger family and its anti Semitic sentiments that it still harbours does come to the surface on many occasions, underlining a nasty relationship between industrial wealth and right wing politics which says that ancestral power is forged on a culture of xenophobia. This may seem like a familiar theme today – equating the power of the ruling elite with racial prejudices but it works frightening well in offering a portrait of family that is decadent. However, this is a family that lives on an island owned by them. The island as a private community, separate from normal mainstream society, not only becomes a metaphor for their relative immunity but constructs an image of the ruling elite who are above the law and cannot be prosecuted for their crimes. Similarly like the gated island for the elite, the glass house in which Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) resides is another key visual motif used to brilliant effect by Fincher in the final sequences. Vanger’s domain, looking over the town, is a glass house and the wide glass panels that give the house its postmodern look point to a transparency which is nothing but a grand illusion – the truth is that beneath the veneer of transparency is a lie of quite literally torturous dimensions. Such political and economic immunity makes Lisbeth’s violent retribution at the end even more class based in its punitive response. Nevertheless, as we are in the universe of film noir, not even someone as powerful as Martin Vanger can escape his wretched past. It is the past, in the lexicon of noir, which eventually catches up with those who try to hide their crimes. And it is the puzzle of the crime that intrigues Fincher the most.

If Zodiac was a police procedural obsessed with putting together all the intricate pieces like an extended jigsaw puzzle then the same principles of micro investigation can be applied to the gradually unfolding narrative of Fincher’s latest film. In genre terms, the noir accents are readily identifiable but if the convention of the femme fatale is central to the iconographic discourse of film noir then the likely suspect may well be Lisbeth Salander. However, if we judge the femme fatale on qualities to do with her sexuality, power and manipulation of men then it makes Lisbeth increasingly unlikely as the femme fatale. Since the 1940s, the femme fatale has changed radically over the years into a much more complicated and morally ambiguous figure. In one way, Lisbeth could be a new kind of femme fatale, one who depends and relies on technology as a tool to exact her revenge. Such a claim is supported when Lisbeth records her rape using a micro fibre camera and then plays it back to the rapist. What separates Lisbeth from the traditional femme fatale archetype is that her sexuality is never overtly manifested. Given the film noir context, perhaps then Lisbeth is a new age femme fatale who is more cyber punk than retro chic. Of course, if we interpret the femme fatale archetype alternatively and reverse gender assumptions then maybe Martin Vanger might fit the mould particularly if we consider the way he uses power to manipulate those around him. It would be wrong to be right off Vanger simply as the bogeyman. For me, another significant convention of a traditional film noir is that central characters tend to be doomed from the outset, usually resulting in their death by the end of the film. In a way, I had expected Blomkvist to die, but both the hero and the heroine live to see another day. What is resolved is the murder mystery enigma of the narrative and in that respect, the ending ends tentatively rather than fatalistically. Absent then is the classical noir finale.

Resolving the murder mystery, the film seems to offer us yet more endings and this is where I felt the film seemed to falter. In the epilogue, Lisbeth is transformed into a Carlos the Jackal like figure, impersonating and emptying bank accounts. Lisbeth gives Blomkvist his muted victory against Wennerstrom but this sudden transformation is way too implausible and outlandish for me to take it seriously. Additionally, and I’m not sure if it is deliberate (maybe it is a sly postmodern reference) but Lisbeth’s blonde look at the end of the film recalls with uncanny precision none other than Lady Gaga; another gender outsider. On the most basic level, this is a superior thriller and its brilliance in terms of constructing a compelling narrative is through the way old and new media merge together to re-present a new truth and a new reality with far reaching consequences. This is a film, like many great thrillers, especially ones by Hitchcock teaches us to look, to gaze at the evidence presented before us and participate in a narrative of disclosure. Technically, Fincher is the best film maker working in American mainstream cinema today. I always pair him with Michael Mann, another visual stylist but Fincher for me has shown a greater consistency than Mann. Much of the production team from The Social Network also worked on this project and cinematography, sound design, editing and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are top notch. The digital cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, who narrowly missed out on Oscar night to Will Pfister for Inception, is the son of Jordan Cronenweth who shot influential films such as Blade Runner. The film’s visual look is a familiar when one glances over recent Fincher films. Shot using the Digital Red ‘One’ and new ‘Epic’ Cameras, the wintry backdrop and predominant use of greys gives the film a striking austere and muted look that fits perfectly with the twisted sensibilities of the narrative. The innovative opening titles is a work of art in itself, juxtaposing abstract images from the film to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ – this extends a familiar Fincher preoccupation with using the titles as part of the narrative storytelling. This is a rich, compelling and at times sophisticated noir that understands the complexities of narrative and genre storytelling. It is also a film by David Fincher.


  1. He might have given unnaturally overhyped Se7en and "Social Network"...But this one s truly amazing....
    Definitely,a collector's item

  2. Hi, I really enjoyed this review. Please check out my take on the film on my blog - http://afrojunglist.blogspot.com/2012/01/girl-with-dragon-tattoo-2011.html

  3. Awesome, thanks for the comments Damon, well put you on my blogroll. Stop by again.