By Dean Duncan
This is an effective package. The mystery really is mysterious, has some heft, resolves in a satisfying way. It raises bigger issues which, though (over) familiar—villainous patriarchy as the root of villainous capitalism, or vice versa—are fair enough. The double-barrel detecting is also effective, what with two insufficient methods and two incomplete (circumstantially, dispositionally) characters combining to lick the platter clean. The character part of this equation is a bit strained, but movies seek symmetry, so that’s okay. There’s some effective cinema here as well. Their photographic investigations evoke a similar sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and aren’t too disadvantaged in the comparison.
Let’s get down to it. What about this rape sequence? Well, it’s very unpleasant, and not just for the obvious reasons. Part of the problem has to do with this rapist-social worker’s contrived, hyperbolic wickedness. Yes, it makes Lisbeth’s vengeance satisfying. It also justifies the monstrousness of that vengeance—after all, he only got what he had coming. And when you think of it, the punishment that she inflicts is not only infernally imaginative, but purgatorially (Dante) apt; the punishment not only corresponds with the offence, it equals the offence. The rape episode is grotesque, but it isn’t just gratuitous. Rather, it’s a cynical, probably defensible statement about the nature of power and its exercise. It is also a emphatic antidote to that exercise; here and subsequently this woman is refusing to be a victim. This sequence is also structurally important, constituting a challenge to the main character, the surmounting of which prefigures her intervention at the film’s climax. Here is Lisbeth’s first step away from rootless and wasteful inertia, her first step on the road to a form of selfhood.
The thing is that like a lot of screen violence and sexuality, the rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo works better, is more supportable and palatable, as a concept. And not as a concept visualized. And come to think of it, in the end, the concept might not be that great either. The film’s ultimate villain and eventual culprit is a more privileged, powerful, pathological version of the social worker. He is monstrous, and of course for that reason we feel quite justified when he is brutally dispatched. After helping to solve this mystery the journalist is vindicated, because it turns out that the guy he was trying to expose at the beginning of the film, the which effort led to the journalist’s temporary downfall, is guilty after all. By this we learn that Capitalists are also monstrous rapists. Is that fair? Well, at least a little bit, and on more than one occasion. Mark Achbar’s and Jennifer Abbot’s vast 2003 documentary The Corporation , to cite just one assertion among many, agrees, and there’s sure a lot of supporting evidence. But even if this extreme thesis were true—it’s not, always—then it could only have hate-generating, desensitizing consequences. Hard films should sometimes be made, because of the way they help us talk about hard things. But in the end they often just harden us.