Sugar and spice
Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is an intense if misshapen little thriller, easily the most entertaining of that by-now debased genre, the serial killer flick.
Here the focus of interest is not on the killer but on Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed girl. As played by Noomi Rapace, she's long of face and fierce of countenance, with a sullen "fuck you" look backed up with either a golf club (she possesses a vicious swing) or laptop (she supports herself through freelance hacking, and online investigations). Rapace is an actress, of course--in numerous videos and photos she seems warmly feminine, with hardly a hint of the character's fierce demeanor; when she does play Lisbeth, however, you can't imagine anyone else in the role (the American remake--but of course there's always an American remake--will feature Rooney Mara as Ms. Salander (no, I can't imagine her doing it either)).
The rest of the picture develops in reaction to the girl's presence (she's both catalyst and responder to the surrounding men and their various activities). Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) conducts the movie's main action, the search for a long-lost young woman, a search that leads him to a cunningly hidden serial killer. Blomkvist comes to depend on Lisbeth for clues and, in an unofficial capacity, for a quick roll in the hay (Lisbeth on top and in charge, naturally); Blomkvist also plays Boy Friday to Lisbeth's punk avenger, dangling helplessly from a line while Lisbeth rides to the rescue (a refreshing change from the endless number of helpless damsels waiting endlessly in distress for the hero's rescue). Nils Bjurman--Lisbeth's legal guardian, a nasty customer--offers small favors in exchange for oral sex and, on occasion, much worse; Bjurman is Lisbeth's bete noir in this picture, though beyond him--in this and succeeding novels (this is the first of a trilogy)--stand far more malignant, far more powerful male authority figures.
It's that 'much worse' from Bjurman that gives the movie its most powerful and--to my mind--most problematic moment (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the picture). Bjurman's assault on Lisbeth is intensely and graphically staged and shot, so intense and graphic it throws the rest of the picture out of whack--why fear sociopathic former Nazi officers and their soundproofed basements when you have Bjurman the fat bureaucrat with his rather sadistic notions of rough sex? A climax that occurs in the middle is not a climax but a misplaced high point, after which the rest of the picture can only be a disappointment.
Author Stieg Larsson was reportedly driven to write the novel when at the age of fifteen he witnessed the gang rape of a girl and failed to help her--the horror of violence inflicted against women is a constant theme in his work. A laudable sentiment, one that inspired Larsson to create a memorable heroine named after that girl of long ago.
That same sentiment tends to make Larsson protective, though--when push comes to shove, Larsson's Lisbeth will always do the right thing, or arrive too late to commit murder (she's not above inflicting violence in self-defense though, or rape with a dildo for revenge--but then the victim is a sex offender, so that must be all right). Larsson inflicts horrors on his heroine, but falls short of truly testing the heroine's moral integrity--it remains as intact as an untouched hymen.
Which is a pity--when was the last time we saw a convincingly complex heroine, or at least female protagonist, on the big screen? Carey Mulligan's sixteen year old schoolgirl in An Education (2009) comes to mind; so does Andre Techine's eponymous youth in Girl on a Train (same year), Melissa Leon's working class mother in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008) and, on a more pop level, Angelina Jolie's double agent in Philip Noyce's Salt (2010). But Jolie's espionage caper is a simpleminded shoot-em-up with breasts attached; I was thinking more of Linda Fiorentino's smart, sexy Bridget Gregory in John Dahl's hard-edged noir The Last Seduction (1994)--now there was a woman (with a wicked sense of humor, no less) willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wanted, humanity (not to mention nine out of ten commandments) be damned. Going further there's the eponymous housewife in Filipino filmmaker Laurice Guillen's classic Salome (1981) and the serial lover in Guillen's much underrated Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983)--films where women are willful entities who struggle bitterly to assert their right to their own sexuality, even their right to choose their own path of self-destruction. Lisbeth Salander sports a Mohawk hairdo and corresponding attitude but when push comes to shove she's really a softie at heart, a girl scout, right hand to breast and the other raised in familiar salute.
First published in Businessworld. 3.31.11