Two Rapes Don't Make A Right - 12/27/11
Over the weekend, I watched Fincher's version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I've never read the book and I haven't seen the original so beyond overhearing someone say he followed the book closely, I can't really talk about Larsson, though I suspect much of my criticism is fundamentally aimed at him. Since I'm going to discuss the mechanics of the story itself, SPOILER ALERT. If you haven't seen it, you've been warned. Let me start by saying what an amazing job Fincher did of making people reading documents and looking at old photographs compelling. I walked out of the theater disturbed, but feeling like I'd seen a good film. The Actors, editors, composers, pretty much everyone was on top of their game.

That being said, there were a lot of fundamental problems. First, it was too long. I checked the time twice during the last hour. I believe this is a function of the fact that it felt like we'd finished the story several times. So let me ask you, what was the movie about? Was it a search for a missing girl? Was it about solving a series of serial killings from the 40s through the 60s? Was it about finding or stopping a killer today? How about getting a corrupt industrialist who is also an arms dealer? Maybe the ways in which Lisbeth Salander's life sucks? Sadly, it was about all of these things. It didn't follow any traditional story structure. It didn't have any structure at all. As a result, you'd get little climaxes, say when Lisbeth rescues Mikael from Martin's murder dungeon. When that ended with the motorcycle chase and explosion, there was a feeling of completion. Sure there were a few loose ends to tie up, but we got the bad guy, hurray! And then we're off to London. Oh, right, we've been looking for that girl. And here she is. Once she's reunited with her uncle, it's over. Whew! Oh, right, Lisbeth had been collecting dirt on the guy who ruined Mikael's reputation. One more quick article and a few television reports that he's under investigation. Now we MUST be done. Right? Why is Lisbeth buying wigs and flying all over the place? Oh, the money. She's getting a payday. Or setting him up to be murdered. Finally. Then we have one last little kick in the teeth for poor Lisbeth when we see Mikael back with his married co-editor and she realizes he'll never love her. The End.

All this is of course ignoring the elephant in the room. The graphic and brutal rape of Lisbeth by her social worker and everything that happened as a result of that. That scene has been haunting me since I saw it. At first I thought I was troubled by the how explicit it was. And I am. But there was something else. Well, several something elses. First, and foremost, that entire sub-plot was unnecessary. Of all the various plots in the story, the only one it advanced is the shit on Lisbeth one, which was the least developed. That bit of backstory didn't shed any light on who she was. It didn't change her or give her any special insight. It did nothing at all to further the plot(s). The second thing that bothered me was her response to it. In a slightly less graphic, but none the less brutal sequence, she returns to her attackers apartment, zaps him with a tazer, ties him up naked and rapes him right back. After having watched what he did to her, it feels like justice. Or at least well earned revenge. If you were to take that out of context though, and just saw a young woman enter a man's apartment, tie him up and force a dildo into his anus, we'd still be talking about a brutal rape scene. And again, why did that need to happen? The answer from a story perspective is, it didn't.

This got me thinking about the central themes of the film and I realized, the only thing tying all of the various plot elements together is rape. This is a film about rape. The victims of both serial killers were raped. The missing girl? Raped by her father and brother. They never tell you why Lisbeth lit her father on fire, but I'd wager it wasn't because he didn't buy her the new bike she wanted for Christmas. OK, so this is a story about rape. So did any of the rapists get held accountable for doing so? With the possible exception of the social worker, not really. The father was killed in an act of self defense, that could be accountability if it wasn't more of an afterthought as we were tying up loose ends. Martin's death was before we knew he was raping his sister. It was never made clear if he raped his other victims. No doubt he did, but that ambiguity at the time of his death takes away from the audience any sense that they got a brutal rapist off the streets. He was a serial killer. And Lisbeth. She's the eponymous protagonist. She walks away with a small fortune and a broken heart.

This whole train of thought struck a nerve with me because, over the last several months, I've been involved in several conversations about writing where invariably the use of rape as a plot device comes up. I've been coming to the conclusion that rape is short hand for "really bad guy" for lazy writers. If you can't write a villain who is compellingly bad enough, just have him rape someone and the audience is on your side for whatever you do to him. Even if you rape him right back. It's almost cliche to have someone say to the rapist something alongs the lines of "when you get to prison, you'll see how you like it" as the police are carting him away.

One of my big problems with casually throwing around rape as a plot device is that it desensitizes the audience, which is why you then need ratchet up the gratuity and brutality to get a strong emotional punch. Adding violence is much easier to do than building a complex emotional structure around your villains to get a similar impact. Lazy writers take the easy way out and we, the audience, are subjected to ever more horrific images. Pretty much everything about the story structure of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo says lazy. Since the story is the foundation upon which the entire film rests, it doesn't matter how well everyone else did their jobs, it is still less than satisfactory.

© 1997-2015 Mike Townsend