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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mesmerizing forensic pornography.

 

A mystery tracing the disappearance of a young aristocrat 40 years ago, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as much an investigation of perversity and sadism in society as a crime drama. Only The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, young cyberpunk Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), the most victimized person in the film, can offer an answer to its violence.

 

When Mikael (Daniel Craig), a celebrated Swedish journalist, loses a perjury case against a corporate criminal he’s forced to leave the magazine he helped create. A Swedish billionaire approaches him with a job offer just as he begins to make sense of his new situation.

 

Henrik Vanger is one of the last surviving family members of a powerful family that once had its claws in everything from railroads and lumber production to newspapers. He promises Mikael that if he helps him uncover the mysterious disappearance of his niece years earlier, he’ll pass along proof that Mikael was right, vindicating the reporter and restoring his reputation.

 

Henrik’s niece Harriet disappeared from the family’s island estate four decades earlier. Although everyone believes she is dead, Harriet’s body has never been recovered and no one has been charged with the murder. Even stranger, Henrik has received a mysterious package every year since his niece vanished.

 

Henrik suspects someone in his family has committed the murder – and there’s a wide range of likely murderers roaming the island – and Mikael takes residence in one of the guest cottages as he reassemble old photos and newspaper clips to understand what happened to the heiress.

 

Meanwhile, Lisbeth (who had researched Mikael for Vanger) has been forced into a sadistic relationship with her state-appointed guardian. She has no access to her family’s money except through the guardian and he uses this position in the worst ways imaginable. He extorts sexual favors from her and eventually draws her into his bed chamber where he brutally rapes her.

 

This is the environment that has given birth to Lisbeth and she literally wears her abuse as a tattoo. Her body is marked by the violent society around her and she has transformed her scars into elaborate symbols of resistance. Lisbeth is an advertisement for the brutality that bourgeois culture would rather keep secret.

 

She refuses to be silenced or willed invisible, even in this brutal world where Nazis still roam the frozen wilderness and rapists hide their crimes on the therapy couch.

 

Mikael is as comfortable in this world as any of the Vangers. His reputation is so important to him that he forsakes both his lover and his career to try to rescue it. It‘s not an urge for justice that motivates him, but a concern about how he looks to others. He is the type of man always looking at his reflection to be certain he is managing his appearance, not so very different than the other men in the film who know to keep their weirdness tucked in and out of sight.

 

The universe of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is weird, not least because there is no normal. Instead we have sadists, victims and those who have somehow gained strength by subverting the damage done to them. People like Mikael, who would rather keep their secrets to themselves, are part of the same system that conceal and disavow the violence inherent to the machine.

 

Murder may indeed be a science of a thousand details, but it’s also a mechanism comprised of infinite secrets. There is a parallel between the aristocratic abuse of power – and more largely hypocrisy of a culture predicated on violence and addicted to sadism – and criminality.

Irrationality, insanity and violence are not aberrations of the society in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; they are its underlying form. The machine itself is mad and only someone who can reflect our sadism back to us can truly be called sane, even if she does wear funny clothes and have a dragon tattoo.

 
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The Descendants is a curious film. Well acted, intricate, and visually quite beautiful, at times it still feels bloated, empty, strangely vacuous: a big hollow ship with bright sails intended to distract you from the fact that there are holes in the floorboards.

 

The star the ship sails by is Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), a wife and mother of two who lies in a coma after an accident. The other characters – shmucky husband Matt King (George Clooney), teenaged daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller), and Elizabeth’s father Thorson (Robert Forster) – try to penetrate Elizabeth’s life, to know what she means to them, as they watch her fade away.

 

At the same time, Matt is negotiating a land deal which will transfer millions of dollars of prime Hawaiian real estate from his extended family to land developers. Descendents of a Hawaiian princess and the white man she fell in love with and married, Matt’s family trust is dissolving with the deal. Although Matt finds himself in the middle of this drama, he is also oddly outside of it, a victim of historic circumstances the same as Elizabeth.

 

When Matt discovers his wife had been having an affair, he chases her lover from one island to another in an attempt to know what she meant to him. Dogged by his daughter Alexandra, who seems less perversely curious at the turn of events than genuinely angry, Matt invariably ends up rediscovering not just the wife who is lost to him, but his love for the land he wishes to sell.

 

Like Elizabeth, Matt’s forefathers haunt him. They represent both the man he could have been – the husband who could have been fully present rather than the man who ran from his wife’s passions; the family patriarch who knows what is worth preserving rather than the petty bureaucrat who shuffles papers from desk to desk – yet where he fails to break through to his wife, he does reawaken an ancient memory for the land.

 

He cannot bring his wife back to him and his pursuit of her lover is strange and creepy, especially when the chase ends in a mirror. The lover is Matt’s double. What do you do when you discover that your wife has left you for you?

 

Matt retreats to the deathbed, the final sign of fidelity. It is he who will stand vigil over the dying body, showing that love is stronger than desire, stronger even than death.

 

Unfortunately for the doomed romantic, Elizabeth’s real man has already moved in. Her dad has created a shrine around her dying middle-aged body, a collection of trophies, plaques, and achievement ribbons from her childhood. While Matt may need to pick at the body, follow clues back into her lover’s bed, Thorson has the guts to call a spade a spade, even if it isn’t.

 

A man’s man – the only one in the film – Thorson is a strange example for Matt. Because although Thorson has no qualms defining the body in front of him, making sense of Elizabeth’s life, he is also utterly wrong, incapable of accepting the woman she had become and instead has trapped her in a memory of her as a young girl.

 

It’s weird that Matt rediscovers his own manly ability to name, define and claim the world only after seeing what a jackass Thorson is…

At its heart, The Descendants is about the loss and rediscovery of the man, not the woman. The woman (Elizabeth) is gone, spoiled, ruined by passion. Like the once beautiful islands of Hawaii, her resources spent on cheap thrills, Elizabeth is powerless, a thing to be acted upon. Even fighting her lover would not return her to Matt.

 

But fighting for the pristine shoreline his ancestors promised him may restore the man in full. He doesn’t have to let it go to seed, let other men enjoy it before he acts, and the final scenes of the film show the king returned and the land in balance.

 

The body reduced to beach sand, the ceremonies concluded in a coronation, The Descendent now reclaims his place in the center of the couch, an emperor of ice cream. And although the film has some great gestures it just seems like much ado about not much.

 
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