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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

DRAGON TATTOO GIRL –WHAT MAKES A HIT?


I saw the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the other day. Previously, I’d read the novel and seen the Swedish version of the movie. Each time, I’ve wondered why the novel, the first part of a trilogy by Stieg Larsson became an international blockbuster.

There are plenty of mystery-thrillers that are better plotted. Some are serialized and I have read one after the other because the first was so gripping. Not so with Dragon Tattoo Girl. The story lacks logic and credibility. Larsson’s writing is ordinary. But still I kept reading. And I’ve gone to see all the movies. So I have to conclude that the magic is in the character¾a character that delivers payback, both personal and for societal justice in ways so satisfying, if absurd, that she can overcome the flaws of the tale.

Lisbeth Solander is a super-heroine. But as satisfying as she may be as a righter of wrongs, she does not feel real. She simply feels right, and I guess that’s the magic that makes a hit. The closest we have come to her before are the cartoonish super-heroines of fantasy films.

The story itself is a fantasy, cloaked in a contemporary, reality-based setting, but a fantasy none-the-less. Sitting in an ubiquitous Cineplex, amid a very typical American audience, I heard nervous laughter at inappropriate moments. Is the revenge tattooing of a rapist funny? Complex issues are dumbed down to the point where, if you want to miss the messages, you can. The Hollywood version of the story delivered the requisite fare of movie elements: gun violence, the car chase, the now seemingly obligatory simulated sexual intercourse ¾ the things that folks pay good money to see, over and over again. None of these things are intrinsic to the big issues Larsson seeks to raise, gender abuse, chauvinism, discrimination, ruling class thievery. They are audience-pandering baubles. But who can deny that they are what sells? After all Peter Stuyvesant bought all of Manhattan for a box of trinkets currently valued at the price of admission for two to the Tattoo Girl movie.

I however, am not in the market for an overpopulated island. I was entertained, but I was not blown away. I knew the story and having now seen or read three versions, I still give it my original “ho hum” rating.  I want something the story doesn’t deliver and I am not impressed with what it does deliver, because it doesn’t feel real to me. When it comes to mysteries and thrillers, I prefer verisimilitude in my plots. I crave solutions to mysteries that derive from analysis and logic rather than coincidences, improbabilities or contrivances. I want the protagonist to solve a riddle by good detective work, using the tools available at the time. I detest blundering. I don’t like it when the villain spills his motives and intentions in a cleanup scene. I want the characters to act consistently with their development. I don’t want the rest of the world to seem a bunch of stupid dolts so that the protagonist appears brilliant by comparison. So for me there was more to be dissatisfied about in this American version of Dragon Tattoo than I found in the Swedish version, which surprisingly turned out to be better than the books.  Here are some of the things that made me cringe:

1.     The blackmail of the rapist. Lisbeth goes to his apartment expecting to give him a blowjob and brings a tiny camera to record the deed. Assuming fortuitously that she is able to place the camera in range, what can be her expectation? She will record an act that, if her guardian is smart, will result in him resigning. Once that happens her video will be useless to her. What point would there be in her broadcasting all over the Internet her giving the guy a blowjob? And the rapist, being a privileged male will be able to talk his way out of trouble while she, a compromised and less-than-credible ward of the state, will end up on the short end of the stick. Anything she tried would be problematic and have no upside. So from a plot point of view the rape is a fortuitous event. But it gets even more unworkable. The terms Lisbeth dictates to the rapist preclude a successful blackmail because they include his guaranteed exposure if she dies or is injured, even if he had no hand in her misfortune. Since she can’t control these things, the rapist has no assurance his compliance will result in silence. Thus, blackmail is a very bad bargain. Moreover, Lisbeth’s ultimate goal is to be released from the guardianship. What happens to the rapist once that occurs? If he gives her what she wants, she can expose him without any consequence to her. I am being asked to believe that blackmail will work here, when it appears the rapist will have to realize, at some point, that he has no incentive to comply with her conditions. 
2.     The detection of the serial killer.  The serial killer lives in a remote place. He is well heeled and he is smart. It is very unlikely that he would or could bring victim after victim to his home over many years without it being noticed that none of the girls ever came back.  But beyond that, in the American film version, he has an elaborate torture chamber that would have required extensive expertise to construct. The place sports a sophisticated gas chamber and complex mechanical equipment. Construction would have required very skilled tradesmen. Tell me no one would have gossiped about having worked on such a thing or supplied the perp with the disabling gas required for its operation. This flaw is a function of Hollywood’s high-tech fetish. Larsson at least had the kill chamber lower tech and in a separate location. Hollywood sacrificed verité for glitz here.
3.     The chase scene. One minute LIsbeth is so involved in freeing Mikail that she fails to notice the serial killer is escaping. The next minute, she leaves Mikail trussed on the floor to engage in a motorcycle-versus-car chase. Even giving her ADD, the scene has problems. The perp could easily wipe her out when she is right behind him, speeding on a narrow bridge All he has to do is apply his brakes, but that gambit doesn’t seem to occur to him, Lisbeth, the screenwriters or the director. Why is she chasing him anyway? They know who he is. They have the evidence of his torture chamber and much more. Where can he hope to go? Haven’t they ever heard of calling the cops? And why leave poor Daniel Craig on the floor? Ah, the chase scene. Sacrosanct. Obligatory. Don’t leave home without it. It adds nothing to the story while taking the spectator out of the drama and into a manipulated thrill. Sometimes chase scenes can be real. This one is totally contrived.
4.     The computer transfer of billions. I’m no computer whiz but I did learn a little about high-level banking during my years as an attorney. When you’re dealing in multi-millions, much less billions, banking is very personal. Transfers of billions in personal banking accounts (I’m not talking about brokerage stuff because I don’t know that business) don’t just happen because someone can hack into a computer account.  If it could, no account would be safe, and they are. “Know your customer” is the rule for banking at the multi-million dollar level and up. And I seriously doubt any sensible banker would take the risk of just running a humongous transfer based on someone being in possession of an account number. Why not just have her steal a credible amount, one she might be able to use, like fifty million? Does the audience really require a fantasy number?
5.     The final scene. Throughout this film we are asked to believe that because of her extraordinary computer skills Lisbeth is virtually omniscient. Plus she is a super-modern, bisexual. How come everyone in the world but her seems to know that Mikail has a long-standing relationship with his editor, including her obliging husband? How come she roars off in a Victorian huff when she sees them both taking a cab? I’m just not buying that one. Sorry. For all Larsson’s feminism, it might have worked better if Lisbeth just sat down with Mikail and explained how pissed she was. Then he could tell her to “grow up.” Then she could get pissed for real and we could move on with the story.


For me, Tattoo Girl is not really innovative. It manipulates the same old emotions simply replacing an animated cartoon character with a live actor whose behavior approximates cartoonish. In doing so, it permits the audience to escape rather than to identify. That's the formula for a hit.

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