Mikael Blomkvist lights a cigarette and squints at Stockholm's steel gray sky. As the publisher of the left-leaning magazine Millennium, he should have known better than to print an unsubstantiated exposé alleging financial malfeasance by Swedish business magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist's reward? A libel verdict, a fine that wipes out his life savings and the end of his investigative journalism career.
But news of Blomkvist's fall from grace has barely begun to spread when he receives a call from a lawyer representing another Swedish corporate legend, Henrik Vanger. The aging industrialist invites Blomkvist four hours north, to his remote and expansive private estate on Hedeby Island. Wine in hand, Vanger relates the story of a vexing mystery that's haunted him for decades.
On Sept. 24, 1966, Henrik's beloved 16-year-old niece, Harriet, disappeared without a trace from the family estate. He suspects someone in his family (most of whom live on the island) must have murdered Harriet—but he's never proven it. Now Henrik believes Blomkvist can succeed where he has failed. "You will be investigating thieves, misers, bullies, the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet," Henrik intones. "My family."
Blomkvist immediately unearths new clues. He also realizes there's more investigative work in the case than he can handle alone, so he asks Henrik for an assistant. The old man already has someone in mind: a young woman named Lisbeth Salander, whom he had previously hired to do a background check on Blomkvist.
Clad in black, Salander is a slight thing, a waif whose facial flesh is shot through with piercings and whose wary demeanor cloaks crazy computer-hacking skills … and an insanely dark past.
Together, Blomkvist and Salander begin to piece together what really happened that day in 1966, even as it becomes apparent that someone doesn't want them digging up the truth. That's because the Vanger family's secrets prove to be more grotesque than even Henrik imagined.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo can be seen simply as an edgy—really edgy—crime thriller. But you don't have to dig too deeply to sense that the story's original creator, Swedish author Stieg Larsson, was also trying to make a statement about the plight of abused women. In Sweden, in fact, you don't have to dig past the story's title. Larsson's original published title was not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but Men Who Hate Women.
Two significant story strands involve the sexual victimization of women. Such evidence surfaces in the case, and Salander herself has endured a life of abuse, assault and degradation. It's suggested that her father was a predator, for which she set him on fire when she was still quite young. Since then, she's been a ward of the state, deemed (unjustly so) incompetent to manage her own affairs: She must submit to the oversight of a court-appointed guardian. For years, he was a kindly older gentleman. But when he has a stroke, Salander lands in the "care" of a sadistic rapist.
Those things aren't positive, obviously. But the film uses them to draw attention to the harsh reality that some women are very vulnerable to malevolent men, and that the crimes those men perpetrate are horrific beyond comprehension.
More straightforward is the alliance Salander forges with Blomkvist—an alliance she certifies by tending to his gunshot wound and rescuing him from certain death when he falls into the hands of a killer. Blomkvist, in turn, treats Salander with kindness and equality, two responses she's not used to receiving from a man. So, in the end, his behavior helps soften her damaged and calloused heart.
Blomkvist's teenage daughter (whose presence has no real bearing on the story) has become a Christian. She wears a cross, prays before meals and is serious about her faith, going so far as rebuking her father when he's quietly critical of her spiritual pursuits. We get the sense here that very few people in Sweden are Christians, and that someone exhibiting personal faith is considered a strange curiosity. Meanwhile, a key character at the time of Harriet's disappearance was also interested in the Bible and Christianity.
On the flip side of the spiritual coin, Blomkvist and Salander uncover a grisly series of rape/murders, perpetrated by a Nazi who only targeted Jewish women with Old Testament names. Further, many of those women were ritualistically killed in ways that have imitative connections with words, phrases and specific sacrifices from Leviticus.
Catching the eye of another woman at a dance club, Salander kisses and gropes her. The camera shows them topless in bed the next morning.
Salander eventually initiates a sexual relationship with Blomkvist as well. He asks if that's a good idea, but doesn't resist her unexpected advance. A lengthy and extremely graphic scene of intercourse ensues. It includes Salander's nearly full-frontal nudity and depicts explicit sexual movements and positions. A second sex scene later is similarly unambiguous. Elsewhere, Salander's bare breasts are shown as she showers. She's also pictured in lingerie. We see Blomkvist in his underwear.
Salander's background report on Blomkvist includes details about his sexual proclivities (including a mention of oral sex) and his ongoing, open affair with fellow Millennium editor Erika Berger. (It's said to have wrecked his marriage but not hers.) At one point, Erika visits him, and we see her silhouette through a translucent window as she disrobes and invites him to bed.
Salander's new guardian, a man named Nils Bjurman, asks her personal questions about her sex life before he assaults her the first time.
It's not the only time, either. Bjurman rapes Salander twice onscreen, employing both physical force and threats to use his guardianship power to undo her life. In the second instance, he handcuffs her, knocks her out and ties her to a bed. He rips her clothes off. And the camera refuses to look away as he violates her while she struggles and screams. We see her bruises when she showers. In the first, he forces her head down for oral sex. (She vomits afterward.) Just offscreen, she manually stimulates him.
Salander ultimately retaliates by returning to Bjurman's house, knocking him out with a stun gun and tying him to the bed. She brutalizes him anally with a steel rod, which she kicks after inserting. She forces him (and moviegoers) to watch footage of the rape. She threatens to turn him over to the authorities, but opts instead to tattoo the words "I AM A RAPIST PIG" across his chest and hang the fear of her vengeance over his head if he ever touches another woman or hurts her in any way again.
As Blomkvist and Salander's investigation continues, they examine crime-scene photos (which we see briefly) of women's naked and at times dismembered bodies. We also hear how another young woman (who survived) was habitually molested by both her father and brother. A flashback shows how she eventually killed her father by hitting him with a boat oar.
The killer Blomkvist is hunting eventually lures him into his private torture chamber. Gas is used to incapacitate the journalist, and he awakens with his head in a noose-like sling and his hands chained to the floor. The killer suspends him in the air and puts a plastic bag over his head.
A knife is nearly thrust into someone's chest. A golf club is swung at a man's mouth, knocking out teeth. A chase scene ends with an SUV crashing and exploding, killing the driver. Blomkvist's head is grazed by a bullet; we watch Salander stitch up the bloody wound. We hear a report of someone being shot three times in the head. A man tries to steal Salander's backpack in a train station and quickly discovers that he's picked the wrong mark: She pursues him and gives him a savage beating to get the bag back.
Blomkvist finds a decapitated cat on his doorstep.
Crude or Profane Language
After she's sexually assaulted the second time, Salander wears a shirt that screams, "F‑‑‑ You You F‑‑‑ing F‑‑‑." Add a dozen or so verbal f-words to that, and one or two s-words. There are two misuses of Jesus' name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters smoke and drink in many scenes. Salander's problematic past includes narcotics possession.
Other Negative Elements
Salander lives by her own personal code of ethics, a code that often winks at illegal activities such as hacking people's personal information. A postscript of sorts after the main mystery is solved involves her posing as someone else and emptying Wennerström's bank accounts of billions of dollars. In this and her vigilante response to Bjurman, she acts as a law unto herself in the ways she seeks vengeance.
In an Esquire interview, Daniel Craig (who plays Mikael Blomkvist) said of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, "It's as adult as you can possibly make it. This is adult drama. I grew up, as we f‑‑‑ing all did, watching The Godfather and that, movies that were made for adults. And this is a $100 million R-rated movie. Nobody makes those anymore. And [director David] Fincher, he's not holding back. They've given him free rein. He showed me some scenes recently, and my hand was over my mouth, going, Are you f‑‑‑ing serious?"
Meanwhile, actress Rooney Mara, whose physical transformation for her role as Lisbeth Salander included shaving her eyebrows, getting tattoos and piercing various body parts, told Allure magazine, "I'm naked quite a lot in the movie. … Because of all the tattoos and the makeup and the piercings, and the physical transformations my body has to go through, it would always feel sort of like I was in costume, even if I was naked."
The result of Fincher's "free rein" and Mara's "physical transformations" is a graphic, exceedingly violent movie that would have never gotten an R rating even 10 years ago. Based on the first book in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (books from which have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide), this is gut-wrenching cinema, an immersion into truly grating subject matter. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, movie reviewer Owen Gleiberman says of Bjurman's attacks on Salander, "His assaults against Lisbeth rouse us to her side, culminating in an all-out violation that Fincher stages with naked horror. When Lisbeth returns to seek vengeance, armed with scurrilous video and a tattoo gun, she's no trumped-up action heroine; she's operating out of hell-bent instinct. Mara acts with a quiet power—a rage chilled into silence—that is almost ghostly."
Fincher is no stranger, of course, to dark subject matter, as evidenced by his work in the films Se7en, Zodiac and Fight Club. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo arguably plumbs new depths of depravity as he invites his audience to peer deeply into the human heart gone wickedly askew. I'll let Gleiberman have the last word: "He's an artist with the eyes of a voyeur, and he has made The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo into an electrifying movie by turning the audience into addicts of the forbidden, looking for the sick and twisted things we can't see."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist; Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander; Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger; Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger; Robin Wright as Erika Berger; Steven Berkoff as Dirch Frode; Yorick van Wageningen as Nils Bjurman; Ulf Friberg as Hans-Erik Wennerström
David Fincher (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club)
December 20, 2011
Adam R. Holz Adam R. Holz