Toward the end of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is lured back into suspected serial killer Martin Vanger’s home after he had been sneaking around looking for evidence to prove Martin’s guilt. Mikael knows that he probably shouldn’t have acquiesced to Martin’s invitation, but he did anyway. Moments after being lured into Vanger’s confines, Mikael is bound and on the verge of being brutally violated. There is a moment of total fear and regret on Mikael’s face when he realizes that he’s been lured into Martin’s trap.
It is to Fincher’s credit that he captured a sort of atmospheric tension that made me feel, for much of the film, like Mikael did in this moment. Most alluring — and striking — about this paired sense of boundary and pain is the way in which Fincher depicts the Vanger family island with cold, deranged effect as a “locked room mystery” — a subgenre of detective fiction that I confess to be easily taken with. I felt a struggle between being drawn into this engrossing, enclosed-spatial sense of narrative, while at times regretting I had entered. This struggle embodies, I think, one of the film’s implicit themes: the appropriateness of boundaries, and the tie between the relational and the geographical.
The film opens with Mikael losing a libel case against a crooked businessman named Wennerström. Mikael seems eager to go after the corrupt elites. However, he’s also not afraid to use journalistic tactics that cross the line in order to achieve the desired end. As a snapshot of Mikael’s failed sense of boundaries, look no further than his marriage-ending lusty affair with his editor. His compromised state is only confirmed when he strikes a deal with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) — the grandfather CEO of the family-owned industry — to obtain the necessary evidence to bring down Wennerström. For his end of the deal, Mikael will live on the Vanger family island while he tries to figure out who among them killed Henrik’s niece, Harriet, nearly forty years ago.
Aiding Mikael in this task is the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a motorcycle-riding tragic heroine whose edgy coolness derives primarily from her ability to subvert boundaries. She’s a genius hacker who can break into nearly any computer system. Coupled with a photographic memory and a general affinity for electronic gadgetry, Lisbeth’s ability to bypass or manipulate boundaries is the perfect complement to her equally adept ability to keep other people at arm’s length. She likes – needs – to have control of the contours of every situation.
But we quickly understand why: she’s a lifelong victim of sexual abuse and violence, made most evident in a grotesque scene where she is raped by her new guardian, Nils Bjurman. A ward of the state due to “mental incompetence,” Lisbeth has only known the pain of exploitative, enslaving boundaries. When she revenge-rapes Nils — or when she initiates sex with Mikael — it’s to take control of the situation of their relationship. One wonders if Fincher felt the need to include the viewer in the sense of violation with his prolonged, lingering imagery, or if it might have been effective enough if, for instance, the close-up on the closed door, with Lisbeth’s cries for help in the background, had been the lasting image. Perhaps the film relies too much on the extremes, gadgetry, and cool edginess to keep us involved in a story that offers little beneath the surface.
In one sense, I fear that Lisbeth is most emphatically depicted as a late-modern heroine in her subversion of boundaries. The question of whether or not Lisbeth should be celebrated or emulated is blurry at best thanks to her cool hacker appeal and powers. Yet, on the other hand, Lisbeth is a tragic heroine in Fincher’s film, for it is difficult to see her approach Mikael — the only man who actually seems to care about her — with a thoughtful gift, only to find him with his editor/mistress. The alienated hacker is looking for a sense of boundary that is infused with love instead of pain: she’s just looking for it from a man with can’t give it to her. Lisbeth, like Harriet, has made it over the bridge to safety from the Vanger’s island, and seems poised to devote her life to exacting revenge against corrupt boundary makers. But will she herself remain an island?