The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011): Difficulties In A “New” Age of Agency

Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christopher Plummer




There is an inherent difficulty, perhaps even potential impossibility, in attempting to critique a system from a position within it. It is impossible to speak critically of language using the terms of the system that you aim to critique. As such, there is a similar difficulty in attempting to level a critique at the patriarchal, often exploitative and misogynistic, social and economic systems in place; the world has been created in the image of men, almost always at the expense of female agency and representation. Hollywood is no exception to this phenomenon. The number of films that are created by, and aimed toward, men staggeringly outweighs the number of female-oriented films… depressingly so once the ideologically Cro-Magnon, and implicitly conservative, romantic comedies are excised – films that are aimed at women, but regardless promote the problematic patriarchal status quo. So it comes with little surprise that a feminist-oriented critique of this web of systems comes not from Hollywood directly, but by way of a novel.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series of novels were an international smash-hit, adapted in Sweden (as of yet unseen by me) before the first novel/film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was re-adapted in the US, helmed by the forensically meticulous David Fincher. The film follows recently humiliated investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig, as he is enlisted by the patriarch of one of Sweden’s richest families, Henrik Vanger, Christopher Plummer, to illuminate the fate of a family member who disappeared forty years prior. Blomkvist must sift through decades old evidence, interviews, photographs, police reports, and business records, to find leads. The Vanger family lives unto itself on a small picturesque island north of Stockholm, and has had a hand in shaping the political and economic landscape of Sweden for over a century. An unknown member of the family is also suspected by Henrik to be the murderer of his niece.

Blomkvist is aided by the investigator who checked him out before this position was offered by the Vangers, Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara. Lisbeth is internal, socially awkward, brilliant, and seemingly entirely unto herself. She is pierced and tattooed, wears dark baggy clothes, her manner distant, her speech bare and clipped with little evidence of socially-oriented politeness. A ward of the state from the age of twelve, Lisbeth has been co-opted by the patriarchal economic structure that prescribe how and when she can obtain money, that panoptically reports on her interpersonal development. Following the stroke of her ward, she must rely on a government agent for the dispersal of her funds. To say that he abuses his position of economic power is a gross understatement. His sexual exploitation of Salander is framed as merely one, particularly egregious, instance of a litany of sexual violence that has been directed at the woman. By having this particular offender aligned simultaneously with the state and with her economic agency, Larsson’s book, and thus the film, make the entanglement of these issues, and the resultant violent perversion, explicitly connected.

There are echoes of Fincher’s Zodiac in how the film’s investigation unfolds itself on screen, albeit with much more forward momentum. Fincher possesses a keen sense of atmosphere and his own meticulous attitude toward film-making is aptly mirrored in the character’s obsessive attention to detail. Images are pored over, clues are uncovered, ciphers are decoded, and a larger and more dire web of serial murders is uncovered. These murders find themselves bonded to the history of the Vanger’s company, further implying a systemic connection between violence against women and the power/economic structures of society, filtering through family structures to the larger bodies of business and the state itself.

Lisbeth and Mikael’s working relationship complicates itself by becoming sexual as well, though not what I would call “romantic” precisely. Lisbeth forthrightly accosts Blomkvist, taking the sexual initiative in a manner that is empowered, however typically “unfeminine”. Indeed, through the film the female characters are often empowered in ways that grant them an agency difficult to find in many other films; it is Salander who saves Blomkvist from a precarious situation in the clutches of the killer late in the film, and a revelation regarding the disappearance of the missing niece similarly posits a feminine force of positive agency. Interestingly enough, the killer, while they have Blomkvist tied up, speaks about the strange power of politeness, how often, despite their better judgment, people will place themselves into a position of weakness, or in the path of danger, out of fear of offending. Through this, Blomkvist’s character is momentarily feminized, placed in a position of vulnerability often connected to the female victims of sexual assault who, against internal urging, refused to act in a way that may offend their subsequent attacker – their reticence to cross the street from a suspicious man, etc.

These moments of feminine agency are, however, undermined by instances in the film that strike odd contradictory notes with the character of Lisbeth and how she is presented. Despite Salander’s being firmly established as being atypically feminine and acting against conventional patriarchal structures, she is regardless presented in stereotypically feminine undergarments at several moments in the film. That she is seen to be wearing relatively extravagant underwear belies the character’s lack of concern with external standards of beauty. It is not a radical gesture to showing a conventional “femme fatale” character in Victoria’s Secret underwear while wearing fingerless leather gloves and piercings; changing the ornaments of a sexualized female object does not render her un-objectified. Lisbeth’s self-determined agency is also undermined in a later scene when she attempts to pursue a potential suspect who has incapacitated Blomkvist and stops to ask his approval. This request for approval is a small gesture, perhaps, but one that belies the film’s perception of the reality of Lisbeth’s self-determination; permission must still be given by the authoritative male figure for Lisbeth to act.

To the film’s credit, it does not exempt Blomkvist from its pessimistic view of masculinity. While other males in the film inflict undoubtedly brutal physical and sexual violence on Salander, Blomkvist himself offers perhaps the film’s most perceptive and broad critique of the violence that can be inflicted by males, or, indeed, one individual on another. All this despite the seeming bond that has developed between he and Lisbeth. There is no man in the film who escapes its criticism. The story is structured such that the scope of this endemic problem of patriarchal exclusion and repression of the feminine is outlined, even if a completely accurate portrayal of it is impossible to render. The film cannot offer a language to articulate a way beyond this problem, being constructed firmly within the system it critiques, but its acknowledgment of the issue stands as a bold, if at times, flawed and contradictory, gesture.

Fincher paces the film by quickly moving between scenes, steadily disseminating information to the viewer while building a tension in the film with its rapid edits between scenes. A momentum builds that crescendos at the film’s climax and is heightened by Fincher’s use of colour. Scenes move between bright whites and dark blacks with little buffer, shocking the viewer and preventing the viewer from settling into a passive reception of the visual rhythm. His compositions are sharp and perceptive, his eye second-to-none among contemporary American filmmakers. The actors uniformly contribute solid, at worst, work to the film, with each of the leads delivering very strong performances – Mara, in particular, earns her Oscar nomination in a tremendously difficult role. The film’s score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross largely works to enhance the tense mood that Fincher’s direction creates, only calling attention to itself on several occasions. All this comes together to create an exceptionally well-crafted film in every area, tacking difficult material with a generally high level of skill that is let down by a few character choices.

Perhaps expecting the film to radically subvert and circumnavigate the structure in which it is constructed is too much; that any film fails to meet its potential for political and social commentary, foisted onto it by a viewer, is no fault of the film in-itself. Fincher has constructed a film that is at once in dialogue with and critical of the concerns of his previous film, The Social Network. That film, often criticized for being exclusively rooted in masculine concerns, with little to no room for meaningful female presence, articulated a point of entry into a new medium through which we live that, despite its contemporary genesis, is dominated by old patriarchal ideas. Technology also plays an important role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, here, however, wielded by the figure of Lisbeth Salander, hacking into the system, exposing secret information, and the tawdry internal lives of men. Perhaps there is a larger allegory here. The character of Lisbeth may not be able to fundamentally alter the system with which she engages, but she can alter it in some way, expose its internal workings, as a potential agent of change. One can only hope that Larsson’s books, and their film adaptations, may perform a similar function.

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