There has never been a heroine quite like Lisbeth Salander, the pierced, leather-clad, taser-toting star of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Her slight frame, disaffected mannerisms, and marginalization in society seem to make her the perfect victim. Salander, however, is anything but victim as she uses her cunning, intelligence, and handy taser to even the odds against those who would abuse her. As rigid and unyielding in her moral code as the Calvinist preachers of Sweden’s past, Salander is the neofeminist ideal of womanhood in novelist Stieg Larsson’s post-Christian, bleak, brutal, merciless world.
Created by the late Swedish novelist in his wildly popular trilogy and brought to life in Swedish language film adaptations of the books, Salander finally gets her American film debut on December 21 when the English language adaptation by David Fincher hits theaters.
Although dark and violent, the gripping film is worth watching for the complex issues of truth, evil, and relationships Larsson raises, as well as the richly drawn worldview Larsson creates and which the movie faithfully follows.
When the patriarch of the wealthy Swedish Vagner family wants to solve the forty year old disappearance of his niece Harriet, he turns to disgraced investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). On a snowy and windswept island, the Vagner clan lives in mutual discord, hating each other through the years. Blomkvist uncovers layer after layer of spite, bigotry, violence, alcoholism, Nazi sympathies, and incest. He needs help, so he calls in an investigator who operates in the shadowy world of hacking and other illegal activities: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
Intensely private and armored against the world in leather, studs, and piercings, Salander trusts only a few. The audience sees, although Blomkvist does not know, that Salander is a ward of the state and accountable to a court appointed guardian. When that guardian uses his power over her affairs to force her into sexual acts, Salander refuses to remain a victim.
The depravity the powerful visit upon the weak, especially women, is a running theme in the story and Larsson stares this evil fully in the face in the books. David Fincher does not flinch in rendering them for film. His scenes of rape and torture are difficult to watch. These, plus graphic consensual sexual scenes and some language, give the film a firm R rating. Mara plays Salander well, although fans of the character will recognize a slight softening from the book and Swedish movies.
The moral universe of the film, although different from Swedish Calvinism in details, echoes its dark and unyielding nature. Salander and Blomkvist would agree with Calvinists that man is utterly depraved. Depravity is proven time and again in the violations both big and small that happen in the film.
However, this is a relentlessly secular world. Religion, when it surfaces, is a baffling hobby, as in the case of Blomkvist’s daughter’s sudden fascination with the Bible, or a malignant force that gives the depraved excuses for their actions.
There is none of the hope that faith offers. In this world, redemption is not possible. Salander becomes a type of avenging angel, meting out harsh justice on even harsher sinners. Mercy is neither expected nor offered.
The highest good comes from exposing the liars and depraved and stopping them from performing their evil deeds. This is what drives both Blomkvist and Salander. Beyond that, one must be “who he presents himself to be,” as Salander says, without false promises or hypocrisy. Thus, when both Blomkvist and Salander take multiple sexual partners, they are acting honorably because there are no lies or false expectations. Even Blomkvist’s married lover’s husband knows and accepts the situation.
Salander, for her part, refuses to enter into relationships. Her moral code does not allow for mercy. To be a human being in relationship is to make mistakes. If mercy is not possible, best to not make any promises. Blomkvist, despite all his oh-so-adult sexual relationships, lives alone and does not share himself intimately. Sex and respect are abundant. Love is harder to find.
There is much to admire in Larsson’s stories. Salander and Blomkvist fight evil at great cost to themselves. They seek truth wherever it may lead. They do not cover the world with a false sense of sweetness. However, I would not like to live in their world.
Forgiveness, redemption, and relationships are difficult, but they are what makes all the fighting evil worthwhile. Love, which is supposed to be the core of the religious culture replaced by Larsson’s brutal secular worldview in this film, is indeed a higher call than justice.