Ugly Tattoos: a Reflection on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steve

I hate tattoos. There, I said it. I know that will offend some of you, especially those of you with tattoos. I hate tattoos because they are ugly. Our world is filled with enough ugliness. Why do so many people feel the need to add to the ugliness by putting bad art on their bodies? Tattoos used to be a sign of outsider status, of rebellion, but now that everyone is getting them they are just bad art. Years ago I heard a great line about tattoos: why would you put art on your body that isn’t good enough to hang on your wall? Sorry, lady, but that butterfly isn’t cute. It’s pathetic! So, will everyone please stop with the tattoos and stick with body piercings. At least piercings will heal up and go away when you come to your senses and see the big mistake that you have made. Have I made myself clear enough? I hate tattoos. But, I am also fascinated by them (which is another reason that I hate them.) I can’t take my eyes off the darn things! I’ll never forget that hot July night when the Stray Cats took the stage at Duffy’s. In that nearly 100 degree heat Brian, Slim Jim, and Lee quickly shed their shirts and for the next hour and a half their colorful tattoos glistened on their sweaty bodies. Alright, I’ll admit it, the tattoos added to the ambiance of that glorious evening of rock and roll. So, I guess maybe tattoos aren’t all bad. If you are in a rockabilly band, by all means get a tattoo, or two, or three. Heck, cover your arms and torso with them. But the rest of you lay off!

What does all this have to do with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aside from the fact that Lisbeth does have a dragon tattoo? I feel about these movies (both Fincher’s version and the Swedish version) a bit like I do about tattoos. Actually, I didn’t hate them. They are both very good movies. Fincher’s version is, in particular, an incredibly well-crafted movie. I found them to be ugly, not in regard to their art, but in the way they reflect upon humanity. I am disturbed by our fascination with that kind of ugliness. Lest you think I am simply a prude, check out the Steve’s 100 page on this blog. In that list of my favorite movies you’ll find four by Tarantino, four by Scorsese, among quite a few other dark films. I would wager to guess that more of my list is dark than light. Maybe that is at the heart of my concerns about the Dragon Tattoo movies. For some reason they seem to have forced me to ponder what it is that I find fascinating in movies of this type. First, there is simply the adrenalin rush involved in an intense viewing experience. Beyond that, there is something cathartic about seeing evil played out in a movie with some sort of resolution at the end. Of course, there isn’t always resolution, or at least not the resolution that we would hope for. In many of these movies there is also the revenge factor. I do not believe in revenge. It is not a solution, but rather a continuation of, or even escalation, of the problem. Do movies serve an important function by giving us a safe outlet for our desires for revenge? Or, do they promote the idea that revenge is a viable solution to a problem? On the one hand, I love the Kill Bill movies. On the other hand, after the killer is discovered in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, I find the question that Lisbeth asks Mikael to be quite disturbing and, equally so, his response. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here!)

Certainly Tarantino’s movies are graphically violent, as are many others on my top 100 list, so what is it about Dragon Tattoo that caused such a strong reaction in me? What line did it cross? It has been suggested that Fincher’s version should have received the stronger MA rating rather than an R. I can understand where those arguments are coming from. The rape, revenge, and torture scenes are very dark, indeed. The question I find myself asking is whether they cross the line from presenting a realistic picture of the ugliness of human nature to reveling in a fascination with that ugliness. And, if so, how is that different from what Tarantino does in Kill Bill,  Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, or Reservoir Dogs? I’m not sure, but it feels different to me. That being the case, why did I still decide to watch the Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo if Fincher’s version bothered me so much? Mostly, I suppose because I find Lisbeth to be an intriguing character and I wanted to see if another director could present the story in a way that was less disturbing. I could then recommend that one over Fincher’s version. The Swedish version is less intense, but the fore-mentioned scenes are still disturbing (especially the rape, less so the revenge and torture). It seems the problem lies somewhat in Stieg Larrson’s story, but I do think both director’s could have chosen to present those scenes less graphically. Thus, I have put this in the Reflection category rather than the Recommendation category. I do not want to recommend that anyone see these films. On the other hand, if you know what to expect and still desire to see them, I don’t recommend not seeing them either! I wish life was simpler.

With all of that being said, I still feel a need to comment on the relative merits of the two films. They are, as I’ve said, very good movies, but I don’t think either of them is a great movie. The reason again is Larrson’s story. As dark and sordid as it is, it is also fairly shallow. It is really just an Agatha Christie-style who done it with more grisly murders. We know someone in Vanger family is the killer because it had to be someone on the island. I’m guessing the book fleshes out the Vangers a bit more, but neither movie focuses much on them. They are mostly just pieces in a puzzle. Although Larrson’s story is weak, he did come up with a marvelous character in Lisbeth Salander. Both actresses bring her to life, but I prefered Rooney Mara somewhat over Noomi Rapace. Maybe that’s just because I saw her version first, but I think it’s because she brought a greater intensity to the role. I’d say the Mikael Blomkvist part is a toss up. Both Daniel Craig and Michael Nyqvist were good in the role, but he’s simply not as interesting a character as Lisbeth. Beyond the two leads, overall I liked the Swedish cast better. They felt more real. That version also had more heart and left me feeling at least a little bit of hope. Fincher’s version, though, has a much better look. The Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplav, at times looks amateurish in comparison. The other place where the Fincher version excels is in the soundtrack. The Swedish soundtrack is fine, but once again Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created incredible music, as they did in winning an Oscar for Fincher’s The Social Network. Their music becomes another character in the movie, creating an intensity that is palpable. I’d love to see them win another Oscar! The main storyline is obviously the same in the two versions. There are slight variations in details, but I didn’t think those made either movie better than the other. There is quite a difference in how the movies end. Both deal with another issue after the main crime is solved. I thought this portion worked better in Oplav’s version, it felt less tacked on than in Fincher’s version, and it had that slight sense of hope that I mentioned earlier. So, of the two, which would I recommend? Ha, you thought you had me, didn’t you? I stand by my non-recommendation. But, if you feel you must see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’d say see them both. Then, go and get a tattoo advertising my blog. Just make sure that it isn’t ugly!