Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Torture and Revenge in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)


I sort of enjoyed 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.

8 comments:

  1. While I understand what you're saying, I don't think that a filmmaker has a necessary responsibility to give any character redeeming characteristics, and it always bothers me when someone puts forth that a film is good or bad because of how sympathetic a character is. I think that Oplev's rape sequence is much more terrifying (and, as a result, more effective) than Fincher's is, and that's due in large part to the strangely sympathetic way that Bjurman's potrayed in the new version.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't think that a filmmaker has a necessary responsibility to give any character redeeming characteristics, and it always bothers me when someone puts forth that a film is good or bad because of how sympathetic a character is.

    It's not so much sympathy I'm looking for as much as empathy. I mean, I agree with you that it would be ridiculous if Fincher and Zaillian were to *sympathize* with Bjurman; that's not what they do in the least. It's true, however, that they allow us to empathize with him a little in those later scenes, where he's being terrorized by Lisbeth, and for me that's okay. Empathy--putting us in somebody else's shoes, including a villain--is always okay in my book. Sympathy, of course, isn't.

    Take another Zaillian-scripted film, Schindler's List. If Ralph Fiennes had portrayed Amon Goeth in that movie as 100% evil, an iredeemable Nazi freak, I can guarantee you that that movie wouldn't have been nearly as fascinating as it became. Zaillian put us in the mind of a deranged Nazi, and even hinted, occasionally, at the very thin layers of goodness buried beneath his exterior that could never be recovered. I always love it when filmmakers do this, since it allows for more depth in the conflicts between heroes and villains.

    It's true that the rape scenes were more terrifying in the Oplev film. At the same time, I don't think Fincher and Zaillian are interested in terror. It seems to me they're trying to figure out--within the constraints of a genre flick--why some people become rapists, and the film they've made admirably (if uneasily) determines it as a disease that plagues the minds of lesser men.

    ReplyDelete
  3. ...rescuing him from Orinoco Flow-induced suffocation.

    Oh, man, I wish I'd written that!

    You bring up some interesting points on the treatment of Bjurman. I agree that the villain in Oplev's film is one-dimensional, and by design. Frankly, compared to that presentation, it would have been difficult for Fincher to avoid creating a character with more nuance.

    Although there have been some compelling arguments made suggesting that the rape scenes in both films remain too erotic (not plainly gruesome enough), I think rapists and child molesters are still considered an extra special kind of monster in our society -- more monstrous, even, than a guy like Goeth. Thus, those characters often end up as one-dimensional portrayals because I think it's too disturbing for most people (artists and audiences alike) to face the notion that they could have any other dimension and still commit those kinds of offenses -- and as a result, empathizing with such characters, as artistically honest as that might be, feels to many like an offense of its own. I'm not saying I necessarily ascribe to that, but I certainly understand it.

    [BTW: Addressing the obvious ... How is Bjurman anywhere near as bad as Goeth? Well, part of it is that he acts on his own. There's no system of abuse compelling his action the way Goeth is compelled by the Nazi movement and orders from above. In Schindler's List, it's vital to bring some humanity to the Nazis because there were just too many people involved, committing or enabling too many horrible things for too long a time. It's impossible for all of them be one-dimensional monsters, and thus the film needed to explore how the momentum of events swept people up like a wave. In contrast, when you have a single character like Bjurman, it's possible that he, in fact, could be a monster -- provided that we accept that within society there is some percentage of purely horrible people with no humanity whatsoever.]

    ReplyDelete
  4. Adam:

    Another insighful reivew from you- well done.

    I have seen both versions and like them both, though like you, I prefer Fincher's. Oplev directed his version pretty straightforwardly, while Fincher does things in his usual edgy manner.

    Nice to see you mention Jeff Cronenweth's stunning cinematography. His work is one big reason we accept this melodramatic tale of murder and past misdeeds (the mystery is melodramatic- the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael is not). The cinematography is among the very best of the year. And yes, Christopher Plummer is superb in his role as Henrik Vanger.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, Tom. I thought long and hard about expanding more on the technical brilliance of Fincher's film, but decided only to mention Cronenweth's cinematography in passing because I feared it would veer me too far off-topic from my thesis. I'll say this, though: Cronenweth certainly deserves an Oscar nod for the movie's aesthetic, and in any other year I'd even suggest he take home the prize -- were it not for Kaminski shooting War Horse on such stunningly beautiful celluloid.

    And yes, Plummer is very superb as Vanger. I felt like leaving mention of his performance out of the piece, but then realized its Christopher friggin' Plummer -- a living legend! It would have been criminal for me to leave him out, even if I had initially intended not to talk too much about the film's performances for the sake of questioning its subtext a little more.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Aha, I was able to restore Jason's comment! Awesome.

    @Jason: The whole thing about humanizing rapists in movies has, for sure, been an elephant in the room for quite some time, which is why it's good to see Fincher... attempting... to confront it head-on here, even he's not entirely comfortable with it, which is understandable. Did you ever see that one Kevin Bacon movie, The Woodsman? It does a fairly nice job of putting us in the tormented mindset of a pedophile. While I can see some validity in the argument that humanizing these sorts of creatures at all may be a moral offense, there's also the counterargument that if we don't, at the very least, try to figure out why they do the horrible things that they do, their crimes will never stop. This sort of debate extends all the way back to A Clockwork Orange, of course.

    When I first saw Oplev's version of Dragon Tattoo, I took notice of the one-dimensionality of the Bjurman character but didn't recognize it as a huge flaw at the time. I figured they were making Bjurman more one-dimensional in that version so as to accentuate the reality of the evil being committed against Lisbeth. But I was surprised that Fincher and Steven Zaillian go even further than that in their version.

    And yeah, I absolutely agree with you that Bjurman is in many ways more dangerous than Amon Goeth, because his actions are all his doing, and are not being motivated by any system. Yet those little examples of him feeling guilty about what he did to Lisbeth, and the possibility of him even being a father to a couple of kids, is proof that even he is not proud of his own dangerous mind. That's what I really admire about the movie: it avoids the easy answers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yet those little examples of him feeling guilty about what he did to Lisbeth, and the possibility of him even being a father to a couple of kids, is proof that even he is not proud of his own dangerous mind.

    Well, "proof" seems like a strong word, especially because I don't agree with your interpretation of his feelings of guilt. The way I read it, Bjurman is surprised that Lisbeth has come to his apartment uninvited, and he probably hopes she's going to voluntarily give up what he had to force upon her the time before. So the first reaction is plain surprise ("Wait, I raped you, why are you here?") and the second reaction is a kind of pedophile's attempt to make friends, to pretend that the violent crime was in fact some kind of loving gesture. (I think it's also possible that the photo on Bjurman's desk is meant to make us wonder if he abuses those kids. In the context of the film, where inner-family sexual abuse is a common theme, it certainly seems like the possible implication. But I won't go so far as to say that I'm sure that's what Fincher is going for.)

    I have seen The Woodsman, by the way, and agree that it's a terrific nuanced portrayal. Of course, that film has the luxury of time to explore Bacon's character, and it certainly shows a man wrestling with his urges and crimes. I don't see enough in Dragon Tattoo to agree that Bjurman wrestles with anything.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The way I read it, Bjurman is surprised that Lisbeth has come to his apartment uninvited, and he probably hopes she's going to voluntarily give up what he had to force upon her the time before. So the first reaction is plain surprise ("Wait, I raped you, why are you here?") and the second reaction is a kind of pedophile's attempt to make friends, to pretend that the violent crime was in fact some kind of loving gesture.

    Very good points. I remember he says something like, "Listen, I feel bad about the way we ended things last time," but you're right that he may just be trying to sweep everything under the rug and not be expressing any real guilt.

    I think it's also possible that the photo on Bjurman's desk is meant to make us wonder if he abuses those kids. In the context of the film, where inner-family sexual abuse is a common theme, it certainly seems like the possible implication. But I won't go so far as to say that I'm sure that's what Fincher is going for.

    Yeah, I wondered about that, too. It's quite chilling that Fincher leaves that one little detail carefully understated.

    I have seen The Woodsman, by the way, and agree that it's a terrific nuanced portrayal. Of course, that film has the luxury of time to explore Bacon's character, and it certainly shows a man wrestling with his urges and crimes. I don't see enough in Dragon Tattoo to agree that Bjurman wrestles with anything.

    True, The Woodsman is way more interested in exploring this issue. I guess I'd say that while Bjurman shows minimal signs of guilt before Lisbeth tortures him, he appears to show a lot more of it afterwards, especially in that elevator sequence later on. By that point he's petrified of her and wouldn't dare abuse her again (even while he's not as afraid of surfing tattoo-removal websites), and his unmistakable fear suggests he's *not* one of that percentage of people in the world with no humanity--unlike some of the Vanger cult.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.