[With Mindhunter set to premiere this week, we’re reposting our deep dives into the work of director David Fincher. These articles contain spoilers.]
Up to this point in this series, I’ve mostly sided with Fincher, his decisions, and his thoughts on his movies. But even by his own metric and intentions, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is almost a complete and utter failure. I understand why Fincher would feel a kinship with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), but his reasons for making the movie—the prospect of an R-rated franchise and the relationship between Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Salander—are, respectively, superficial and underdeveloped. Looking over the making-of documentary and his commentary track, I’m astonished at the gulf between Fincher’s intentions and what the movie presents.
Like with Zodiac, Fincher states he didn’t want to make another serial killer movie, and I think in that regard, Dragon Tattoo holds to that promise. But the movie also doesn’t adhere to what Fincher envisioned. On the commentary track he says, “it was really a tale about a 20-something girl and a 40-something man helping each other out of hiding.” If you were to make a list of all the things Dragon Tattoo could be about, this would be sixth or seventh.
On the surface, this looks like the perfect material for Fincher. The setting is cold and bleak; the supporting characters are nasty; there are far more bad people than good people in the narrative; the mystery is salacious and grotesque; and then there’s the brilliant, emotionally reserved, calculating character right at the center of the movie. None of it matters because Dragon Tattoo—at least in terms of Steve Zaillian‘s script—is an awful story with terrible pacing and a sloppy collection of ideas that are laughable at best and insulting at worst.
It seems like the more popular a book is, the more the movie adaptation has to stick to it. The screenwriter becomes heavily reliant on subtraction rather than transformation or addition, and in the making-of, Zaillian acknowledges they had to cut away huge swaths of subplots and side stories from Stieg Larsson’s novel. I have never read the book, and after seeing this adaptation as well as the Swedish adaptation, I have absolutely no desire to do so. This avoidance is further compounded by the fact that Larsson was a journalist who clearly pulled a Marty Stu by using himself as the basis for Blomkvist, and then created Lisbeth in an attempt to atone for witnessing a rape when he was a teenager. His atonement is undermined and twisted by the fact that Lisbeth becomes sexually involved with Blomkvist.
The movie is confused over how to handle sexualizing Lisbeth. First, there’s the rape aspect, which permeates not only her story, but also the mystery. The direct translation for the first novel isn’t “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”; it’s “Men Who Hate Women”, and the only carry over from the mystery to Lisbeth’s personal arc is rape. Lisbeth is raped, and the victims in the case are raped. Therefore, Lisbeth gets to represent some dark avengers for all women who are raped and murdered even though her revenge against Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) is a fantasy clearly created from the perspective of a man.
Lisbeth Salander is not written as a real woman, and even Fincher identifies her as someone who has an “androgynous” look and the spirit of a 13-year-old girl, which I suppose is justification for the idea that if someone rapes you, the proper thing to do is to rape them right back. The movie does not present this as a controversial idea. When Lisbeth rapes Bjurman, she wears a make-up mask like she’s a superhero. In an interview with The Independent, Fincher clearly stated that “She’s not the sodomy avenger,” but both her look and her actions say differently.
We don’t need this scene or this plot to convince us that Lisbeth would immediately join Mikael’s quest “to catch a killer of women.” Her eyes light up at the prospect, but nothing we’ve seen informs us that she would be indifferent had she not personally suffered at the hands of a rapist. Furthermore, her rape is never brought up again with the exception of threatening Bjurman in an elevator. It’s not treated as a real, psychological, traumatic event. Larsson came in with the best intentions, left with an awful outcome, and Zaillian’s script followed suit.
I think Lisbeth’s rape was kept in not because it’s narratively or even thematically relevant; it was left in because it’s powerful since the act is inherently horrific. There are no “mitigating circumstances” to rape. Fincher shoots the rape scene to the darkest, most disturbing place a studio film will allow (and by studio film, I mean in comparison to a small, foreign film like Irreversible), and it’s painful to watch. But it’s also unnecessary because we know rape is stomach-churning. We don’t need to hammer home this point to feel sympathy for the killer’s victims.