On Torture and Revenge in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)
I was loving every minute of David Fincher’s new remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, up to a point. What bothered me a little [spoilers] was the way Fincher handles the climactic scene at the end, in which the movie’s villain finally gets his comeuppance. In the scene, the villain, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), has just escaped, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) asks her partner, Mikael (Daniel Craig), “May I kill him?” Mikael nods. What follows is a high-speed chase between Martin and Lisbeth that ends with Martin’s car tumbling off the road and catching on fire. Lisbeth approaches the overturned car, gun in hand, and is about to shoot the wounded Martin when the car suddenly blows up. He’s dead.
Those of you who have seen the 2009 Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, will recall that this scene played out a little differently in that film. In that version, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) walks towards the overturned car while a dying Martin (Peter Haber) starts crying out to her for help. She is not sure what to do. Should she help him? No, she decides to let him burn. Later, Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), who—in this version—did not give Lisbeth permission to kill Martin, wonders how she could be so insensitive. “He was an evil motherfucker who hated women!” she roars. Mikael is startled by her outrage and decides to back off, realizing that Lisbeth probably acted the way she did because of her own personal experiences. She did not rescue Martin from the burning wreck because she has been too wounded by men, in the past, to allow her heart to bleed for sadistic criminals like him. And she is grateful to Mikael when he decides not to question her motives any further.
Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2009 film, I appreciated the inclusion of that small little argument between Lisbeth and Mikael because it addressed a genuine concern: the morality of killing. And torture. And revenge. Oplev’s film finally asked audiences: if you were watching even the most despicable criminal dying in a car wreck, would it really be okay to simply let him burn to death? Wouldn’t it be more righteous to save him instead, and turn him over to the authorities? Or do our personal biases color our decisions either way? Oplev’s film seemed to engage this question, but Fincher’s film seems not to.
In all fairness to Fincher, that scene in Oplev’s film—where Mikael and Lisbeth argue about Martin’s death—was written on the spot by the screenwriters and was not, in fact, present in the original Stieg Larsson novel (which I haven’t read). And yet I was greatly disappointed that Fincher decided not to include the scene in his own version, because without it, the two films are saying two wildly different things about the morality of killing. In Oplev’s film, Mikael is appalled by Lisbeth’s indifference at the scene of Martin’s death; in Fincher’s film, Mikael is the one who gives her permission to let Martin die in the first place.
I'm not giving Fincher enough credit, though. There are other areas of his version that are actually a vast improvement over the Oplev version, even as a commentary on torture and revenge. In particular, I think Fincher has done a better job, than Oplev did, in his handling of the controversial scenes between Lisbeth and her sadistic guardian Bjurman, a conflict that begins with Bjurman torturing and raping Lisbeth and ends with Lisbeth doing the same to him. You will recall that these scenes in the Oplev film were rather simplistic; Bjurman (Peter Andersson) seemed overwhelmingly sinister—and deprived of all humanity—before Lisbeth finally reduced him to tears in the big torture scene. The filmmakers did not provide him with any background or any redeeming factors.
Fincher’s version improves on these shortcomings significantly, perhaps because screenwriter Steven Zaillian has humanized sex-crazed psychos in his scripts before; think Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List or Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. Fincher and Zaillian have a much different take on Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). In an earlier scene, when he’s harassing Lisbeth in his office, we notice that there is a photograph on his desk of what appear to be his kids. I don’t recall this detail in the Oplev version. By including it in his own version, I think Fincher is trying to make a point that Bjurman is not just some random rapist pig. No, he’s an otherwise normal man who’s most likely had evil rape fantasies built up in his psyche for quite some time now. Later in the film, after he’s already raped Lisbeth, he is surprised when she turns up on his doorstep again. If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear a slight whimper in Yorick van Wageningen’s voice; it’s like he’s under the deluded impression that his rape of Lisbeth has made her fall in love with him or something. He even tries to express a little guilt for the way he treated Lisbeth the last time. And then—BAM! She tazes him.
Well, I’m not sure about the rest of you, but this kind of reminded me of David Lynch’s forays into similar material; think Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, or Leland Palmer/BOB in Twin Peaks. I believe the reason why Fincher and Zaillian wanted to humanize Bjurman a little more is because they see him, like Lisbeth, as a victim of sorts, though obviously not in the same way. Rape is more than just a cultural atrocity—it’s a cultural disease. It poisons the minds of men who fall under the spells of their own hideous fantasies, believing that violent domination of women will somehow convert them into falling for them. It’s disgusting stuff, but it’s necessary to comment on it. Mass audiences will no doubt cheer when they see Lisbeth torturing Bjurman and sticking a dildo up his rectum, which isn’t an entirely misguided response; after what Lisbeth has just gone through, a little audience catharsis in her vengeance is to be expected. But when Lisbeth stares into Bjurman’s eyes and forces him to nod his head and confirm that she’s insane, I think Fincher and Zaillian are finally asking us: what do you, as an audience, think? Is torture an effective antidote to rape? Or is it just another problem?
I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings about this movie. At times I loved it, with its eerie Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, sublime Jeff Cronenweth cinematography and stark performances by all (including a wonderful Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger), while at other times I wasn’t so sure how it was supposed to make me feel. Faithful readers will recall I was troubled last year by what I perceived to be a pro-capital punishment stance in True Grit. But now, despite some lingering reservations, I guess I don’t have a lot of problems with the way The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo addresses cultural practices I detest (like torture and revenge), because I think Fincher and Steven Zaillian know exactly what they’re doing. I especially like the way they end the film. Lisbeth is about to return to Mikael, with a gift, when she spots him in the arms of his lover (Robin Wright). Heartbroken, she throws her present into the garbage and speeds off into the darkness, isolated. It turns out Mikael isn’t so grateful, after all, for Lisbeth rescuing him from Orinoco Flow-induced suffocation. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, of course, since he spends most of his time in the movie flirting with a house cat instead of her.
It’s a sad and poetic ending, one that not only improves on the icky happy ending of the Oplev version, but also confronts us with the consequences Lisbeth will have to endure. Fincher and Zaillian play fair. They let Lisbeth have her vengeance, they let her torture her guardian, they even let her have the pleasure of watching a serial killer die in a car explosion, but there is a price to pay. For the life she lives and the ruthless methods of justice she embraces, she will have to go back to her solitary existence—without Mikael—and wander the streets alone.