Friday, September 3, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- gratuitous violence with depravity too

Director: Niels Arden Oplev, 2009. (R)

Most have now heard of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first book in the Millennium trilogy, though many don't recognize the name Stieg Larsson. Larsson's books have sold 15 million worldwide, but he did not live to see any of this success. A left-wing Swedish journalist, he died of a heart-attack at 50 before this first novel was published.

Two characters are at the heart of this movie. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a left-wing reporter, seeking to expose the truth. Much like Larsson himself, Blomkvist fights for the truth, even at the risk of danger and liberty. At the start of the film, Blomkvist is found guilty of libel and sentenced to prison. But this is a set-up, one that is never fully explained. Disgraced and unemployed, he is offered a job solving a decades-old mystery.

Forty years earlier, Harriet Vanger disappeared from an island after a family gathering. But the Vangers' are no ordinary family. They own a rich and successful financial group. They are powerful and secretive. Harriet's uncle has always suspected foul play, with one of his own clan as the murderer. Now he hires Blomkvist to research the possible crime.

The second character is far more interesting and disturbing: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). She is the girl with the dragon tattoo . . . and more. Leather-clad with  rings and piercings all over her body, she is emo-gothic with an attitude.She appears on the scene as a hacker, who has been hired to find out about Blomkvist, though why is left unclear. But she is good at her job. With a computer at her fingertips, she can apparently find out almost anything about anybody. After hacking into Blomkvist's computer and watching his investigation, she gets sucked into the mystery, ultimately working with him on the island.

With modern technology comes insight and new ways of exploring the disapearance. Oplev does a good job of showing us how a Macbook with Photoshop can bring out details not seen before. But modern technology also brings with it new threats. . . and new ethical issues. Hacking, of course, constitutes a crime. It is an invasion of privacy, at the very least. Who wants to be spied upon? But it harbors the potential for much more -- manipulation, stealing, identity theft, etc. It is digital trespassing with malicious intent.

Yet, can such hacking prove beneficial? If it is used for good, can such wrong ever be considered right? This is an ethical dilemma. Certainly some would argue that sin, any sin, should be avoided. But others dispute this, pointing to the use of lying to save the innocent, as many did in WW2 to protect Jewish refugees in hiding. Larrson's Lisbeth proves to be the detective to unlock the mystery, but only because she hacked Blomkvist's computer. If she had not done so, the disappearance would have remained unresolved. Was this right or wrong?

As Lisbeth and Blomkvist begin to decipher the clues, they point to a deeply buried secret in the Vanger family. One disappearance reveals another crime and then another, until murders stack up. As the two would-be detectives dig deeper they find themselves in danger of becoming victims of murder themselves.

Though little of her past is revealed, we realize Lisbeth has had a checkered childhood. She has not experienced positive male relationships. We see her attacked by a male gang. Then her court-appointed guardian turns abusive. She has learned to protect herself with disregard for law. For law has not provided for her in any positive way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo highlights, if nothing else, the dark depravity of the human condition. From the lack of familial love among the Vangers to the brutal ugliness of the social worker who is supposed to be a helper, violence and sin become central. Even the main protagonist, Lisbeth, is violent. This jives with the biblical account of humanity. Created perfect in God's image (Gen. 1:26), we have fallen from grace and now bear the evidence of this fall in a corruption of nature and character that cannot be hidden: "There is no one righteous, not even one . . . All have turned away, they have together become worthless" (Rom.3:10-12) Unlike in this film, the answer to this depravity is not additional violence and death. Rather, it is divine grace, freely given and freely received (Rom. 3:24). We cannot cure ourselves. We cannot become uncorrupted by vigilante justice. We need vicarious justice, where someone else takes our penalty. That someone is Christ. His death becomes my salvation (Heb. 9:28).

As much as the film is a compelling mystery, it is nevertheless overly violent. With a savage rape scene and grisly images of torture and murder, the gratuitous violence left me disturbed. This is not a film for the faint-hearted. It might be better to wait for the American version, directed by David Fincher, due out in December 2011. Hopefully, that will leave more to the imagination than this one.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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