I once heard somewhere that while life is full of people, things, events, and acts that are despicable, horrifying, brutal, and simply bad, we must all as fellow human beings realize that we owe it to those who suffer – which could someday, at some point, be each of us – to simply bear witness. Through witnessing, reflecting, and learning, we can hopefully enlighten ourselves and then pass it on to someone else. Through witnessing and internalizing lies one of our chief hopes of redemption.
From the beginning of time, women have been brutalized. There seems to be something intrinsically built into the DNA of man that compels him to exploit, expose, strip, destroy, and conquer woman. Tomes of academic and literary books have been written on the subject, which I will not belabor here, but suffice it to say that the victimization and marginalization of women has by no means been eradicated in this “enlightened” age. In that sense, we seem to have lost but a small fraction of our primitive brutality. It must be something firmly lodged in the limbic brain.
As a young man, author Stieg Larsson witnessed a gang rape of a young girl, and for years afterward suffered guilt and shame over having not intervened to save or help her. The girl’s name was Lisbeth, and when Larsson wrote his first novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he gave the name to his main character, Lisbeth Salander, who has emerged into popular culture as one of the most nuanced, complex, and compelling female characters in literature. She is significantly female, not simply a character, because she is formed precisely through her experiences in the world as a woman. In the novel, Larsson describes her childhood as being consistently plagued by people whose life missions seem to be to make Lisbeth miserable, while she only wishes to go about her life and be mercifully left alone. When this doesn’t happen, and her person is invaded physically or verbally, she lashes out. As a result, she has been labeled a problem, a delinquent, an incompetent by the state, and is appointed a guardianship.
The misogyny and abuse only escalates once Lisbeth confronts Advokat Bjurman, her guardian in charge of her accounts, her psychological condition, her privileges – basically her life. And in return for granting her the right to her life, Bjurman demands certain favors in return. This savage wielding of power brings something out of Lisbeth that transforms her, while also confirming her long-held fear and reinforcing the fortress she has built around herself, in the guise of piercings, tattoos, and black clothes. She has insisted on committing her own exploitation, before anyone else can come along and do so. She is a self-created defixiones, a Greek word for a curse or a hex. Approach at your peril.
Her rape and retaliation propel her into the next phase of her life, and the story, of the novel and the film. When asked by disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to assist in investigating a forty-year-old mystery involving the disappearance of a teenage heiress, Lisbeth’s interest and motivation is piqued by Blomkvist’s choice of words: “I need you to help me catch a killer of women.”
Together the intriguing duo is plunged into a world of brutality, fascism, sex crimes, incest, and more hideous human ugliness than one prefers to think about while moving through their everyday. But the truth behind Larsson’s contemporary opera of the grotesque is that all over the world – but particularly, for Larsson’s purposes, in Sweden– hideous things do happen, in high places, and are swept under the Persian rugs of the wealthy and aristocratic, and just in time for tea.
One of the most compelling aspects of the novel and film is the portrayal of the Vanger family, a corporate swarm of loathsome men and women populating the desolate Swedish island and barricading themselves behind their doors to avoid their siblings, aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers. It is a nest of hate and seething, long-standing rage that if exposed may very well melt away the frigid Swedish winter, with a blaze. Standing out among them is the patriarch, Henrik Vanger (played with the usual effortless presence by Christopher Plummer), a man driven by obsession over the unsolved disappearance of his niece, Harriet. He is Dante, willing to traverse the darkest corners of the Vanger Inferno to find the truth of what happened. One gets the sense he will not be capable of going to his deathbed before finding out.
Cultures harbor within their environments a specific, personal kind of sadness that seems to run through every vein of their history. The precise malaise, depression, and other psychological states of mind influence the people of the land, and Director David Fincher smartly chose to keep his film set in the novel’s native country, rather than moving it to, say, Canada. (“There’s snow there too, right?” one can imagine an executive arguing.) And Sweden has never looked more sharply, crisply beautiful than through the lens of a David Fincher film. The cool blues and blacks have petrified beneath their ice a hideous secret that is fighting to return to light (the lush hues of the flashback scenes hint tantalizingly at the possibility of a world devoid of sin, a kind of Eden).
Stieg Larsson captured, in his Millennium trilogy of books (including The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), a component of the Swedish underground, but it is an underground populated by judges, policemen, lawyers, and other high-standing public figures. Larsson’s contempt is felt throughout every page of his work, which invests the books with an extra layer of urgency and fascination. These aren’t just pulp novels, they are, in their way, making a political, sexual, and cultural statement. And now that the books are international bestsellers, and the American film adaptation is out, perhaps Larsson’s urgency will be felt and shared by many.
Relative newcomer Rooney Mara embodies not only the physical traits of Lisbeth Salander (described by Larsson as looking, from a distance, like a skinny boy), but also the inner fire muted by a fragility that is merely reactionary, a wall flung up at the world that seems to spit: “Stay away!” But a person like Lisbeth, for all her harsh projections, becomes increasingly a human being not only intriguing, but deeply worth knowing, if you can possess the presence of mind to earn your way into her world. And reporter Blomkvist earns his way in, without trying too hard, simply by regarding her as a partner moving alongside him through the investigation, both of the disappearance, and of what they mean to themselves and each other.
People rarely ever lose every piece of their inner walls, but if chunks can be loosened and razed, that delicate, nuanced process itself is fascinating to witness, and worthy of a story. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, both novel and film, rises above the very real human ugliness it unflinchingly depicts because of the very human relationship at its heart, two damaged souls who come together under extraneous circumstances, and through the unrelenting bleakness manage to hold onto a little bit of mutual beauty.