The original title of the massive bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was “Men Who Hate Women.” Its author, Stieg Larsson, intended to leave his fortune to the Communist Party when he died in 2004 (though a mistake in his will prevented that from happening). If you are unfamiliar with the story (which was, along with the rest of the trilogy, made into a successful series of Swedish films released in the U.S. last year), put your expectations for subtlety at the level marked “undergraduate.” This series of potboilers, like The Silence of the Lambs, involves a serial killer, sadism, women in peril, a secret cell where awful things happen to captured victims, and an unusual crime-solving partnership between a man and a woman. What it doesn’t offer is the slightest instance of plausibility, psychological depth, or even clever dialogue. And as directed by David Fincher, the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t far from being rated X.
The young woman of the title, played by Rooney Mara (who is best known for having played the exasperated girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg at the beginning of Fincher’s last movie, The Social Network), is a mohawked, multiple-pierced (even, as we learn, in her nipples) Swedish punk computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander. At the start of the film, she is hired to investigate Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a crusading journalist who has just lost a major libel lawsuit against a corporate giant who, like all capitalists in the film, obviously came by his fortune dishonestly.
Salander has a history of antisocial behavior and petty crime, so she can only access a trust fund meant to support her if she can prove she is an upstanding citizen to a court-appointed guardian who naturally takes the opportunity to tell the girl she can’t have the money unless she provides oral sex to him. Whether it would be wise to ask a violent and hostile person to perform this task against her will is one of many legitimate questions the movie simply ignores in its quest to provide an ever more-revolting series of gruesome images. This scene is only the first of what will turn out to be three unbelievably sick and lurid encounters between the pair, but don’t worry: Lisbeth is capable of defending herself.
She and Blomkvist join forces (well into this 158-minute movie) to investigate the case of a girl who went missing in Sweden 40 years ago. Her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), wants Blomkvist to write a family history and maybe solve the crime while he’s at it. Vanger mentions that his family of wealthy industrialists is — just as you’d expect — full of Nazis. What else would you expect a communist writer to come up with if not the idea that making a fortune means you’re probably a National Socialist?
It turns out that that missing girl story is peripheral to the main horror, which is that the remote Swedish island that is home to the Vangers has also been headquarters for a long history of rape and serial killing reaching back across the decades, though no one noticed this was happening until Blomkvist came on the scene. It’s difficult to say which is more pronounced — the sense of feminist grievance (with rapists and girl-murderers skulking in every dark corner) or the outrage that some company might be making money somewhere. As the sadly recently deceased Christopher Hitchens put it in a 2009 essay, Larsson’s “best excuse for his own prurience is that these serial killers and torturers are practicing a form of capitalism and that their racket is protected by a pornographic alliance with a form of Fascism, its lower ranks made up of hideous bikers and meth runners. This is not just sex or crime–it’s politics!” As for all those disgusting rape scenes? “Moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels,” Hitchens wrote, “because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval.”
So take the critical hosannas for Larsson’s trilogy with a grain of salt. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could hardly be pulpier, nastier, more contrived, or more risible. Its characters — morally pure crusaders, evil fanatics — could not be less developed. The sex scenes between Blomkvist and Salander seem thrown in to give us one more chance to see Mara (who is in her twenties but has the body of a high-school sophomore) naked, not because Fincher makes us see any connection (emotional or physical) between the characters. The film is as depraved as Caligula, but at least Caligula didn’t pretend to be anything other than smut.