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Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo: What it Feels Like for a Girl

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Men Who Hate Women. That’s what Stieg Larsson called his book, which then became The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. To know this story is to know Larsson. If you forget about him, the key to this story is lost. The story is about men who hate women and the women who fight back. Larsson was a bit of a hero in this and other battles he personally fought throughout his very short life. He was against the extreme right in Sweden, against racism and misogyny.  After witnessing the rape of the a 15 year old girl named Lisbeth, he never forgave himself for failing to help her.  This, it’s been said, was what motivated him to write his books.  A Swedish film did a great job of turning his book into a movie that was sold in countries all over the world. So why remake it at all?

Because a story about a female avenging those men who hate women is more relevant now that it ever has been. In fact, it’s downright revolutionary. The only kind of women we see are those who are unrealistic comic book heroes, or those who are trussed up as ultimate fantasy fodder for gamers. It’s getting worse, not better.

So, you could do as many a critic will no doubt suggest, not remake the movie. Let it just sit out there in Sweden as “their story.” Or, a popular American director like David Fincher can make Dragon Tattoo redux – he can take this well known story, render it with an obsessive’s eye, redefine its archetypical characters and most importantly, give a much wider audience the chance to experience the film’s gravitational center: Lisbeth Salander.

As realized here by Rooney Mara, Salander seems only part human. She’s done what she can with what little of her there is but she’s hardly there – a streak of black ink across the cold, geometric blondes of Sweden. Black hair reaching down in harsh shards over eyes, which beam out strangely like the lonely predatory eyes of owls, pinning what they want through the dark. Her skin has been stitched, tattooed, bruised, sucked, clawed at, beaten, punched, kissed. She wears the traces of those disassociating sensations like she wears tattoos – they can seduce or intimidate, depending on what she wants or needs. But she learned early on that need was not a useful emotion so it got buried. She trusts no one. She makes up her own rules as she goes along and can find out anything about anyone — Salander can penetrate every layer.

When Fincher announced he’d next be doing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo some grumbled that it was going to be a “paycheck movie” for “fuck you money” — a crowd-pleaser, not a “Fincher film.” Not a Fight Club. Not a Zodiac. And no, not a Social Network. It’s funny how quickly most of us are ready to classify something because it’s too weird to have it just dangling out there as an unknown, which makes it all the more strange that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best films of 2011. From the opening credit sequence the notion of piercing through surfaces emerges. It is a strangely disturbing sequence set to a reworking of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, with Trent Reznor and Karen O. that might seem random to some but is keeping with the themes that thread loudly and silently through the film. This is a movie about protective layers, and what happens to those layers when they are tugged at, torn at, savaged and pulled apart, and also what happens when they are willingly exposed.

In remaking the Dragon Tattoo there are some things you just can’t avoid. Fincher sticks to the story mostly but he’s far more concerned with filtering it through the abstract. When the camera is on Salander you almost forget you’re watching the mystery that the film is obligated to work through. But on closer inspection, the story of “men who hate women” emerges and you start to make the connection no longer to the men in the story because they aren’t nearly as important as the women. These women fought back. Where they were victims they figured out how to protect, to kill, to escape. This is some hot shit in 2011, when the decade swings back continually to a time when women couldn’t do much more than bake a pie and give great head.

Even though we’ve long since known Lisbeth Salander in print, and she was put to screen beautifully by Noomi Rapace, there is something strangely exciting to Mara’s performance that feels brand new. To be fully capable? To be the one you want to have your back? To never really need to be saved? To not have been sculpted to suit the unending envelopment of the male gaze? It never happens anymore. Not in American film. Mara’s Salandar is almost a shapeshifter. Half the time you’re not even sure she’s there but if she is, she’s five steps ahead of you already. Her vulnerability is never completely gone and her sexuality is wholly within her control. Her own sexual pleasure is an important as his, maybe even more so.

Fincher might be more well known for his films about men. It took me a conversation with him and a look back at his work, starting with his videos with Madonna, but through Panic Room and Alien 3, okay, not the best Fincher flicks, but there is a theme throughout: he can take the heat women can throw down. And I don’t just mean leather clad, pierced and tattooed motorcycle girls, or yoga-perfect pop stars; I’m talking about a single mother stuck in a huge apartment with no weapons except a steel-doored panic room, some phone wires, gasoline and a match. I’m talking about resourcefulness that springs from vulnerability and fight or flight impulses. A few directors were masters at showing their characters struggling with the two. Maybe nobody did it better than Alfred Hitchcock, but Fincher has mastered it.

As the Dragon Tattoo project evolved, the first piece of news was that Fincher had to fight for Rooney Mara as the famous anti-heroine. The studio apparently wanted a lot of sexier actresses who could bring in the box office numbers, or sway the weather vane — that fickle boner that sometimes generates into formidable box office. But it was skinny college girl Mara, last seen verbally wiping up the floor with Mark Zuckerberg, who was the gollum-like cave-dweller Fincher envisioned. He’s stuck to it — and the end result might not be every fanboy’s cup of tea. She might not be fuckable enough for some. But he is true to the character. He gives Mara everything a director can — he gives her what Larsson would have wanted — the whole movie.

Fincher uses composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again to collaborate on Dragon Tattoo. What Reznor/Ross bring to the film takes film scoring to a different plane; it doesn’t enhance what isn’t on screen, nor tell your brain how to feel so much as it throbs alongside the story, pulling back the comforting layer and leaving mystery and ambiguity in its wake. Like with The Social Network, the score here is as integral a piece to the overall film as the writing (script by Steve Zallian), the acting (great cast playing a variety of twisted characters), and of course, the directing. Fincher is getting better and better as a storyteller, even if he’s stepped back from the dense vibrancy of grunge of his early career. His partnership with Reznor, in particular, is part of that storytelling – because a composer who isn’t afraid to use music to reveal context rather than fill it in works well with a director who never overlooks or brushes past a single minute of screen time. Reznor does it with sound. Fincher does it with film.

Like most great films, Dragon Tattoo gets better with the second viewing, and probably even better with the third and fourth viewings. The Stieg Larsson books are densely detailed. Once the names settle in and the plot somewhat becomes less complicated, the film breathes. Fincher is well known for his exactitude and one simply cannot get everything that’s going on the first time through – especially some of the more intricate shots, like one in particular of Rooney Mara’s thighs with her hand dangling to one side holding a gun. His are, like Hitchcock and Scorsese’s, films to be studied. He takes so much time with each shot that repeated viewings will always pay you back with one discovery after the next. Sure, but listen to critics who write it off because it’s not The Social Network.

By the end of the film, the whole point of it comes to life. This is a movie about a girl, all right. Her hard shell finally cut through, as she encounters the one man who cares enough about her to bring her a sandwich for breakfast and stand ten feet back from her, never reaching out his hand so much as to shake hers. As Blomkvist, sweetly rendered irresistible by Daniel Craig, keeps his distance from Salander, so does the girl with the dragon tattoo want to move closer to him. To fall in love is to have the most important layer pulled back, and the softest of flesh exposed. It’s a risk Salander has avoided for her own sake for most of her life. But to keep all surfaces protected means to repel everything that comes softly near. And that is an even bigger risk: to never have the sweetest thing.

I look around this year at the films that are headed for Best Picture and I’m seeing mostly movies about men. Even if Dragon Tattoo wanted to be about about a man it has been overtaken by a girl.