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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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