David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the globally successful novel by Stieg Larsson and following a 2009 Swedish film adaptation, isn’t the sort of Christmas season movie you’ll want to enjoy with the whole family; nor is it a film that will in any way leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s a rather cold, brutal, punishing journey, and yet one with enough grandiose kinetic energy, artistry and inherent—albeit sometimes overstated—truth to make it a potentially worthwhile moviegoing experience for the discerning viewer.
Set in Sweden—cold, snowy, white Sweden—in both the present day and occasionally in flashbacks, Tattoo is essentially a murder mystery. Fresh off a potentially career-ending libel case, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by the wealthy patriarch of the Vanger dynasty, Henrik (Christopher Plummer), to investigate a 40-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of his young niece Harriet. Blomkvist is invited to the family island where the murder took place and where many members of the extended Vanger clan still reside. There, holed up in a creepy cabin with boxes of archival files, he tries to piece together, C.S.I.-style, the evidence in a seemingly hopeless cold case. Like a game of “townspeople go to sleep” Mafia, Blomkvist must try to discern which family members are innocent and which might be the killer, even while he himself is targeted to be the next victim.
But for all his investigative prowess, Blomkvist is soon upstaged when he is given an infinitely more talented research assistant, the mysterious and heavily pierced Lisbeth Salandar—the girl with the dragon tattoo who has a particularly keen interest in helping to find a brutal killer of women. Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is master hacker with a goth wardrobe, a photographic memory, and a brilliant mind for doing just about anything it takes to defeat bad guys. Parentless, emotionless, quiet, broken, and yet full of pent-up rage that makes her a terrifying and unpredictable time bomb, Lisbeth makes for quite the unsettling blank slate character. What happened in her past? Aside from a hint that she was abused by her father, we do not know. What motivates her? Her single-minded passion to channel her rage into finding justice for Harriet gives us a clue. Harriet—who not coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to Lisbeth—was savagely raped and abused by devious men decades prior, something to which Lisbeth can all too painfully and recently relate.
Adapted for the English language version by screenwriter Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), Tattoo is a story and a film in part about abused women and the ways that they can fight back. Lisbeth is herself a victim—and in one particularly harrowing (and arguably unnecessarily graphic) sequence we see her being violently raped, followed shortly thereafter by her equally violent revenge on the rapist. This is the simple explanation for her intense desire to discover and destroy the killer of Harriet Vanger. And yet it’s more complicated than that, because Lisbeth isn’t just some righteous feminist superhero saving the day for abused women everywhere. She’s a deeply flawed person motivated by a seeping resentment—justifiably, perhaps—of most men. Her relationship with Blomkvist softens her a little; he’s a man she can trust, a man who doesn’t objectify her. And yet she objectifies him, bedding him at her first opportunity. Perhaps this is because in Lisbeth’s unfortunate experience, sex has always been about power, not love. Only after Lisbeth can dominate him sexually as men have so often dominated her, can she begin to trust him.