Rape shall with further rape be expelled: the moral maze of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Wednesday December 21st 2011

There’s too much anal rape in this movie,” joked David Fincher when quizzed on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Oscar chances. If those sound like the flippant words of a first-year film student out to prove just how pRoVoCaTiVe he really is, then they’re a good indicator of the level of nuance exercised by Fincher in the film.

Based on the hit Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson (originally titled Men Who Hate Women) the film is an indictment of institutionalised misogyny, thinly veiled behind a Midsomer Murders-esque mystery thriller. Lisbeth Salander, the titular ‘girl’ of the anaemic English title, is a prodigiously talented hacker and misandrist vigilante, whose rape at the hands of her court-appointed guardian is as horrific as it is blatantly allegorical — she might as well be wearing a mask with the words ‘All Women’ written on it while he screams ‘I am society!’ between thrusts.

The main narrative, in which Salander teams up with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist in order to solve a complex series of violent crimes spanning four decades, is merely an extension of this thesis. In fact, from Blomkvist’s initial sales pitch (‘I want you to help me catch a killer of women’) through to the outrageously melodramatic conclusion, Fincher’s film offers barely a line of dialogue that can’t also be read as a comment on society’s ingrained misogyny.

Good for him, right? It’s not every day you get a $100 million tentpole studio release that willingly tackles such an important societal issue. The problem is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes almost no effort to effectively tackle misogyny, beyond pointing at it for half an hour and then punching it in the face for a bit.

The film offers two methods for fighting society’s maltreatment of women: the cautious, journalistic approach exemplified by Blomkvist, who spends months interviewing, analysing and investigating his suspects; and the hands-on, militant response embodied by Salander, who exacts revenge on her attacker by raping him in kind. But while most films might explore the relative merits of these vastly different — and equally flawed — approaches, Fincher’s movie merely picks a side.

Time and time again, Blomkvist’s methodical techniques prove inadequate, inaccurate or unhelpful, whereas Salander’s brutality consistently delivers results — a trope that’s well established in action movies and buddy cop comedies, but rather more unsettling in a serious drama about institutionalised misogyny.

The film revels in Salander’s ruthlessness, painting her revenge-rape as not only righteous, but also empowering and ‘kind of badass’. We’re practically urged to cheer along as she pays her oppressor back for the brutal anal rape (cinematic shorthand for ‘doubly bad rape’) he inflicted on her earlier. Now, call me a woolly liberal but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to suggest that sexual abuse is best fought with sexual abuse. As the film itself suggests, this ‘paying forward’ of physical brutality is what gave rise to our culture of abuse in the first place, and yet our reaction to Salander’s retaliative rape is meant to be one of unthinking support. Evil Shall With Evil Be Expelled indeed.

There’s no question that Fincher is a thoughtful guy, and an immensely talented director, so quite what attracted him to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is beyond me. For the most part it’s a gripping and effective piece of filmmaking, and one that’s technically masterful, but — unable to make sense of Larsson’s already confused source material — Fincher’s film soon lapses into hypocrisy. Still, true to his word, it does feature a considerable amount of anal rape. Hardcore, man, hardcore.