Monday, December 12, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have an inverse-ratio reaction to hype. The more the masses are clamouring to read something or watch something, the less my inclination to approach that work. Mainly it’s because I recognize my own capacity for disappointment, partly because I’d rather wait till all the fuss is died down, and not a little bit because I’m because a contrary old bugger.

I steered clear of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy while it was pitching its tripartite tent on the higher slopes of the Times bestseller list and beating off all competition with a stick. I’d heard various opinions, from “riveting if not particularly subtle thrillers” to “second-rate Agatha Christie with some nasty anal rape”. I still haven’t approached a single volume.

The film versions bypassed me on the big screen. They were truncations of Swedish TV productions, each three-hour adaptation shorn of about forty minutes’ for its big screen release to conform to a more commercial running time. I had it on good authority that if you weren’t familiar with the books, you’d be in for a lot of head scratching.

Then the trilogy in its uncut nine-hour epicness hit the shelves in a stupidly cheap box set and – finally – curiosity got the better of me.

The title is something of a misnomer*, indicating that Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) – she of the oriental-themed ink-work – is the protagonist. Actually, she’s pretty much second fiddle (although a pretty bloody essential second fiddle, particularly in the last act) to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist for radical magazine Millennium who, as the story starts, is facing a three-month custodial sentence after a major corporation take him to court over an article. It soon becomes apparent that Blomkvist was set up.

With six months until he has to serve his sentence, Blomkvist accepts an assignment from Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the octogenarian senior partner in a major manufacturing company. Vanger wants him to investigate the disappearance, forty years ago, of his niece. He is convinced she was murdered and that one of his family is the killer.

Salander, initially hired by the corporation responsible for prosecuting Blomkvist to hack him, becomes drawn to his investigation. She has a troubled background, having torched her abusive father as a girl (the backstory is a tad sketchy, though the image of a man in flames plunging out of a BMW is certainly memorable!) and is currently paroled under the supervision of a “guardian”. This, ahem, “gentleman” is Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), a controlling sadist who blackmails her into sexual services, then assaults and anally rapes her. Salander’s revenge on him, somewhere around the mid-point, is a textbook exercise in “an eye for an eye”. Or in this case a – … actually, I’ll just let you find out for yourselves.

The “eye for an eye” aesthetic is apposite, since Salander twigs to a Biblical clue in Blomkvist’s investigation and the two become unlikely allies. Once again, Blomkvist finds himself up against corruption in big business, ties to Sweden’s pre-war Nazi sympathy movement, and a sadistic antagonist with a Fritzl-like prison/torture chamber basement conversion.

It’s to director Niels Arden Oplev’s credit that he doesn’t let this miasma of fascism, corruption, degeneracy and misogyny descend into the lurid depths it could so easily have plumbed. In fact, the thing that struck me most about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was its portrayal of evil as something bland and almost desultory. There’s nothing gothic or grotesque about the villain’s basement, even when he opens a cabinet the inner surfaces of which are decorated with photographs of his victims at point of expiration. Au contraire, it’s a utilitarian and rather mundane set-up, as if Ikea had designed a range for the psychopathic rapist on a budget.

The made-for-TV origins of the project leave a few other scenes looking unintentionally bland, as well (which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what a great visual stylistic like David Fincher will do with the remake), with only Blomkvist and Salander’s connect-the-dots dash around Sweden as they revisit old murder scenes and clues fall into place, breaking out into a truly cinematic sequence.

It’s a curious piece of work, all told, and I’m tempted to approach the books now, just to see if the same dichotomy is present. There’s a sense that a real socio-political statement on twentieth century Sweden is being striven for – one, moreover, that’s wrapped up in an indictment of misogyny – and yet the plot points, narrative tropes and dramatic set-pieces employed to reach it are pure pulpy hokum.

Still, it benefits from solid performances all round, with Nyqvist convincingly essaying a world-weary but idealistic protagonist and Rapace – in her breakout role – fucking owning the film as the tattoo’d, leather-jacketed, studded-collar-wearing angel of vengeance that is Lisbeth Salander. A heroine of our vicious times.

*Both book and film in their indigenous language go by the title ‘Men Who HateWomen’.


Anonymous said...

I think this book is not written well-I posted a review on my blog last year. I saw the original movie with subtitles and the main character was so miscast it ruined the movie for me. The main actress was perfect. The only good thing going for the book is her! The rest is muddled, awful sentence structure ( or it gets lost in the translation) and story lines that are way too long. At least the Americans cast Daniel Craig in the lead...I'm still not going to see it. Thumbs down on the book! Best-seller list does not mean a thing.

Bryce Wilson said...

I could forgive the clumsy prose and the plodding narrative. But The insurmountable problem for me with this material is that it's just woefully inadequate as a mystery.


I'm sorry you can not build up a big impossible locked room mystery and have the answer to it be, "She was hiding in the trunk of a car. Gee I guess we just kinda forgot to look there."

That might fly if you don't know there's better stuff out there. But it took a lot of self control not to just toss my paperback out the window when I read that.

That might fly for people who aren't genre savy, and don't know there's better stuff out there. But that's just it, it's basically a crime novel for folks who don't read crime novels.

Neil Fulwood said...

Chrissy - "Best-seller list does not mean a thing"; I am in complete agreement. I've read a few books this year that are selling in improbable numbers that I've been utterly unimpressed by. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

Bryce - I read Sarah Waters' 'The Little Stranger' a few months ago, which takes a similar cop-out approach to the classic haunted house story, almost to the point of saying "ghost, what ghost, who said anything about a ghost?" I felt exactly the same way as you do about 'TGwtDT': for people who know and love the genre, it just doesn't get away with its shortcomings.

Erich Kuersten said...

Hey Neil - I felt exhausted, elated and disturbed seeing the first film, so disturbed especially I wrote a whole article about it, which I should have called 'Men who hate Men who hate Women'

The cross-cutting for example between the whole mini rape-revenge subplot and old whats-his-name dutifully looking around in old files was inhumane -- how can we be expected to care, and how is this a 'mystery thriller' read by housewives and not marketed as a lurid grindouse adults only no-one-will be admitted once showing has begun type endurance test ala Passion of the Christ or Irreversible?

Anyway, I haven't even seen the other two films and get a dark shudder everytime I try to cue them up, as well as a chill of revulsion just seeing the commercials for Fincher's remake. Brrrrrr!

Michael Grover said...

I have yet to read the books, although my wife did, but I did watch the Swedish trilogy of films with her (the truncated ones), and I enjoyed them quite a bit. I loved the character of Lisbeth Salander, and I agree that Noomi Rapace was a revelation in the role. She's an actor to watch.

Although I'm generally opposed to the idea of Hollywood remakes of foreign films, I'm curious to see Fincher's remake for the same reason as you. It will at least be interesting to look at.

One thing that I'm curious about, however, is why some reviewers feel the need to highlight the fact that Salander is anally raped (and this doesn't just apply to you, Neil - I just read it in the New York Times last weekend as well). It's a horrible scene, and I confess that I wasn't really dwelling on which particular orifice was being violated at the time. I suppose it's specified in the book and is naturally carried over to reviews of the film, but it just strikes me as a bit odd to see it mentioned all the time.

Neil Fulwood said...

Erich - just checked out your article. Hell of a piece of writing. BTW, the trailer for the Fincher remake gives me the shivers as well.

Michael - I think what struck me about the anal nature of the rape scene - this is why I was specific in mentioning it - is that it seemed to me like Lisbeth was being subjected to an extra level of degradation and depersonalization. What she goes through is also reinforced by the nature of her revenge on Bjurman. I understand that Larsson was once witness to a rape and unable to stop it and the event became a defining trope in his writing career; I guess he staged the scene the way he did to emphasize the abject lack of respect, lack of humanity, lack of empathy inherent in the act. That the film then cuts to Lisbeth hobbling away from Bjurman's apartment, barely able to walk, makes for a scene that's almost equally hard to watch.