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Ethics Check: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
By Sarah-Jane Murray and Kathryn Arnold
For some mature and media-wise viewers, there’s nothing like a good thriller. Who did it? Why? What happened to the victim? Questions like these, coupled with subtle and carefully paced revelations in the script, keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
And then, there’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, a deeply disturbing – and highly problematic – movie directed by SOCIAL NETWORK’s DAVID FINCHER, now showing at a theatre near you, just in time for Christmas. Having seen the movie earlier this week, the thought makes us cringe. We have to ask, What on earth possessed the filmmakers?
Like the earlier Swedish version, the 2011 movie is an adaptation of the novel by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, upon whom the Spanish Observatory on Domestic Violence bestowed a posthumous award in 2009. As indicated on the movie website, Larsson was devoted to covering stories about neo-Nazis and extremist organizations. As a child, he saw a teenage girl raped and was unable to help. As a result, he developed considerable anger against the exploitation of women and wanted to do something about the senseless violence he witnessed. This eventually led to the birth of the fictional character Lisbeth Salander, whom Larsson described as “a dysfunctional character living by her own ethical code.”
The supposed and commendable (although not necessarily effective) intention of the book’s author –i.e., to raise awareness about extreme violence towards women, etc. – and the decision to make a movie that exploits graphic violence and extreme, voir pornographic sexual content are at irreconcilable odds. We have to believe that there are better ways to bring sexual abuse to light than depicting the gruesome details of the very act. To understand why, one need not read all the studies recently published about the effects of graphic violence and pornographic content on viewers. Attending a screening of DRAGON TATTOO immediately brings the issues to light. (Fortunately, we went to see the movie so that you don’t have to see it. In fact, like MOVIEGUIDE®’s reviewers, we recommend that you stay far, far away from the movie. Looking for an action flick to attend with teenagers? Go check out the exciting MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL or THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Searching for an inspiring family movie? HUGO will not disappoint. In need of a good laugh? Run to see THE MUPPETS. An adult drama? In spite of the revisionist portrayal of Thatcher herself, MERYL STREEP’s performance in IRON LADY is sure to raise attention this awards season.)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a film that visually depicts too much. In fact, as one of us pointed out via Facebook® shortly after the screening, it’s tantamount to visual rape. Not only are we trapped in front of a giant screen when Lisbeth’s new social worker forces her to perform oral sex, we later have the extreme displeasure of watching him tie her to the bed, put on a condom (yes, we see that too), and then rape her. If the description makes you cringe, you can imagine how we felt with the whole thing vividly portrayed in color and larger than life just few meters from the end of our noses.
If that’s not enough, Lisbeth decides to take matters into her own hands. Although she has a video tape of what the guardian did to her, rather than go to the authorities, she returns to his home, shocks him with a taser gun, ties him up, sodomizes him with a foreign metal object (of which a photograph is included on the movie website), beats him, and then tattoos “I’m a rapist pig” across his chest. Throughout this process, her rapist-turned-victim soils himself twice.
Viewers laughed and cheered Lisbeth on at the most disturbing moments of her ultraviolent act of revenge. Why not, you might ask? He deserved it, didn’t he? To be sure, the guardian committed a grievous crime and sin against Lisbeth, but nothing he could do would authorize her morally to do the same unto him. Especially when there were other official outlets she could pursue. Vigilante revenge is never the solution – morally, or for that matter, practically. It’s a slippery slope and even natural, moral law dictates that such retribution, dealt out according to an individually-centered and self-established definition of Justice is far from just.
At the end of the day, we had to do a double take as viewers cheered Lisbeth’s actions. Were we sitting in a movie theatre in 21st Century America or in the Coliseum during the gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome?
Later in the movie, a pet cat is chopped into pieces and arranged in the shape of a swastika on the front steps in front of the guest quarters where Mikael Blumkvist (played by DANIEL CRAIG) is staying. This time, in contrast, the audience gasped at the horror of the brutal (and brutish) act committed against an innocent animal. How can this be? How have we, as audiences, become so desensitized to violence against humans, when we can still in the depths of our soul recognize and react with disgust to the slaughter of a pet?
At least in the 2009 edition of the film, the character of Mikael shows some sense of morals and ethics when he reacts to Lisbeth’s failure to assist the villain, Martin, when he crashes his car after an intense getaway sequence. In the Swedish original, Lisbeth comes upon the crash site and finds Martin pinned beneath the wrecked car. He cries out for help to her, a spark ignites under the car, and it catches fire. As in Fincher’s more recent adaptation, Lisbeth stands and watches while Martin burns to death. But in the earlier movie, Lisbeth returns to Mikael, who pries the story from her and gives a grave look of concern. He remarks that he could never do that – a subtle yet important moral pointer that Lisbeth’s moral code is out of whack – and goes on to thank her because she did, after all, save his life.
At the end of the day, we’re burning to ask Director David Fincher why so many troubling, graphic scenes had to be shown so vividly on screen with nothing left up to the imagination. Moreover, how does this movie push the agenda of raising awareness against violence and honor Larsson’s intent? Instead, the 2011 GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO posits a world in which we each are the rightful determiners of justice and in which there is little place for the good, the true, or the beautiful. And, even more dangerously, it creates a sliding and relative scale for morals and ethics, according to which the evil actions of one character authorize his demise at the hands of his victim turned perpetrator, without any check or retribution whatsoever. It has no place on our screens this holiday season.
Editor’s Note: Sarah-Jane Murray (Ph.D., Princeton) is associate professor in the Honors College at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Kathryn Arnold is a writer based in Austin, Texas.