The perennial popularity of vengeance as a central theme of literature and film plots is an interesting concept to ponder in this time of year when we are supposed to be thinking of “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” I’ve long regarded the desire for revenge as being mainly a guy thing; on the “justice tempered with mercy” spectrum, it always seemed to me that women were primarily the ones holding up the “mercy” end. But when it comes to a dramatic scene where some creepy man gets his just desserts for the ill will toward women that he has acted out in the form of sexual violence, it’s tough for even a pacifist like me to suppress the urge to cheer.
That sense of righteous wrath fulfilled becomes even more intoxicating when the avenging angel is not merely one more male hero rescuing a helpless damsel in distress, but the empowered damsel herself. In my girlhood, I never wanted to be a Disney princess; I wanted to be Wonder Woman or Emma Peel from The Avengers: a cool, spunky superheroine who could take care of herself, without the intervention of some prince. So it’s no wonder that a new generation of young women is now taking to their hearts a certain scruffy, utterly self-sufficient computer hacker (who, I suspect, is also destined to populate the nightmares of a lot of men): Lisbeth Salander, the titular heroine of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Daniel Craig gets top billing in the advertising for this movie, based on the first volume of the late Stieg Larsson’s monstrously best-selling Millennium Trilogy. The normally suave-looking Craig does a fine turn with the role of Mikael Blomkvist, looking crumpled and stressed-out as a crusading investigative reporter who takes up an unusual job offer after losing a libel lawsuit. But it’s young Rooney Mara as Lisbeth who mostly propels this story, in parallel with Blomkvist’s plotline for the first half of the movie and then converging with it to resolve the 40-year-old murder mystery that the erstwhile reporter has been hired to solve.
Living on her own, not quite of the age of emancipation in Sweden, dependent on a corrupt state-appointed legal guardian for tiny outlays from her inheritance, Lisbeth is a ward of the state and veteran of abusive foster homes and stints in jail and psychiatric wards. Thin, pasty-faced and unhealthy-looking, she walks with shoulders rounded forward, as if perpetually protecting herself from the blows that rain down from a hostile male-dominated universe. But we can tell that somewhere along the line, something happened to her that caused Lisbeth to swear that no man would ever hurt her again. And men who try invariably live to regret it.
She’s also something of a genius at finding out anything that anybody wants to know about anyone who uses a computer, and it’s her formidable research skills that Mikael needs in order to find out what really happened in 1966 to the teenaged great-niece of billionaire industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Harriet Vanger disappeared from the midst of a family gathering on an island in northern Sweden and is presumed dead, although her body has never turned up; the only possible suspects are family members. Henrik has been trying to find out whodunit for decades, and brings in Mikael to complete the task.
The Vanger family is one of the most dysfunctional ever filmed, riddled with Nazis both unapologetic and closeted and laden with plenty of other ugly secrets. Their isolated little Nordic island is a sort of Lake Wobegon from Hell. Most of these people are as chilly and unwelcoming as the hard, angular furniture in their bleak dwellings. Mikael needs a wall chart just to keep track of who’s not talking to whom and why not. If, like me, you’re one of the dozen or so people in America who haven’t read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you also might benefit from walking into the theatre armed with a printed family tree. That’s especially true of the women in this story, who – except for Lisbeth, with her short cap of black-dyed Goth hair – all have long, straight blonde tresses. A point is reached late in the narrative when it becomes particularly important to be able to tell one blonde from another – but I’ll say no more about that.
Modern mechanisms of technological espionage and identity theft, as well as the film’s social messages about the haves versus the have-nots, the pervasiveness of violence against women and the replication of abuse through generations of families, make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem especially timely. So does its sleek, slick, very nearly black-and-white visual style. But at heart it’s a classic murder mystery, and offers up the requisite red herrings that make such stories satisfying: the clues that mislead and the characters who turn out to be not quite as nice or as nasty as they first appear.
On a deeper level, the film raises some intriguing questions on the subject of trust, as an abused young woman who wants nothing to do with men begins to open up when she meets a man whose mission is to trap the serial killer behind a long string of gruesome attacks on women. The question of whether that fragile trust will turn out to be warranted presumably gets addressed in the second and third volumes of the trilogy. In the meantime, the viewer can have fun trying to outguess the sleuths – then stand up and cheer when the helpless guy has to be rescued by the fearless girl.