Monday Morning Review: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'; or, David Fincher's 'CLUE -- The Movie!'

Monday Morning Review: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'; or, David Fincher's 'CLUE -- The Movie!'

Dec 26, 2011

The pop-culture spread of Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- originally the much-zippier, bleakly Scandanavian Men Who Hate Women -- was one of those things where the jump to the general populace was so fast and far-flung it felt like a nasty collective virus. What was it? Surely it wasn't the writing -- Larson's prose style is the aesthetic equivalent of fluorescent lighting, a stark point-of-view where you see everything, but it all looks very ugly.

Was it the way the intrigue leapt across the globe but spent a lot of cold-ass time in Sweden, where a sexy crusading journalist -- hey, kinda like Larsson-- was tasked to investigate a decades-old murder? Was it the sultry, semi-sexy come-here-go-away pursed lips of second protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, a socially depraved-on-account-she's-deprived semi-vigilante? Was it the possible to have the page-turning velocity of the thriller with the plodding earnestness of the modern left? More importantly, this Salander chick -- is she hot? Does she take her top off?

David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- already filmed in its native Sweden, the first of three novels that Larsson passed on to be published before passing on himself -- is in many ways the mewling, half-whelped offspring of Fincher's dark directorial style. That Fincher look means shooting fast, obsessed with the idea of information, finding the Darkness out in all that night with digital technology, even as, stylistically, it's Ouroboros going down into the basement where the dead girls and the secrets are.

Some of Fincher's other work, and better work -- Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club -- suggests that the vast and cruel cosmos grinds on, willfully heedless of our need to know. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an exercise in phony gnosis and choose-your-own-adventure-styled antics -- If you would like to witness Mikael Blomkvist's lonely public struggle against the man, turn to page 243; if you'd like to read a sequence where a young woman is raped and sodomized, turn to page 174 -- that says all things can be known, the soothing salve of the best-selling fiction in both public and private.

But what is it, exactly, that separates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its 'I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddling journalist-avenger kids!' plot from a bleak episode of Scooby Doo, with Daniel Craig as uptight Fred Mikael Blomkvist and Mara Rooney as hacker-hipster digital Velma Lisbeth Salander? (People praising Salander as a 'fresh character' have clearly never seen that wellspring of Jungian inspiration known as 1995's Hackers, and in many ways, their lives are better for that sweet oblivion.) If the hunger for a female protagonist in action literature were some heretofore untapped wellspring, why wasn't Thomas Perry's Jane Whitfield series a equal hit, similarly lauded in praise and gold?

The simple reason for the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in print, it seemed, had to do with giving the great American book-buying middlebrow -- but, Christ, at least book-buying --what they wanted, which was the appealing double prospect of sexualized violence in the service of plot that they can both be titillated by and feel superior to. As the bedroom and the boardroom intertwine, the scale goes broader and broader, after Blomkvist hires Salander to work the decades-old case he was taken on to crack. Blomkvist muses as the plot comes together: "Sex, murder, torture, Nazis ... what have we left out?" Not too bloody much; the operatically flourish of plot points in the source material is more comical than dramatic. Will the man who hired Blomkvist die before giving him the secret of the libel trial that bankrupted him ... but could not break his will, dunh dunh dun? Will the string of murders in the past be unfolded and explained in time to stop a similar series of murders, which we are not told about until the villain's Goldfinger speech, happening here and now?

It is not necessary to rail against the fetid, clammy-palmed sexual politics of the series -- it would be fun, but only up to a point -- when the whole rickety dramatic enterprise cannot bear the weight of one of Mara's alabaster sideboobs when they are literally brought out to liven up proceedings, never mind the burden of serious scrutiny. the film then becomes the most sour, dour evening out in some time, from its shock-jock cock-rock opening cover of "The Immigrant Song" to the soft-twinkle kinda-sorta-maybe of the last shot, with all the dead cats and violations you need studded in-between like so much padding. (How Fincher's film is rated "R' and the excellent Shame NC-17 is beyond the grasp of normal human ken.) Performances and politics aside, based on plot alone -- Craig and Mara bumping around, and bumping uglies, in the dark while mystery-solving in the world's best-shot Cinemax late-night thriller -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bestseller whose blurry plot and uglier digressions make it more forgettable than indelible. 

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