PLEASE BE ADVISED this post contains reference to and graphic discussion about rape within a film. If this would be upsetting to you, please do not read it.
Of all the movies I have seen this year, I have to say that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the most disturbing and difficult to watch. Like the few other Swedish films that have gained popularity in North America (ie Let the Right One In), this is scheduled for a Hollywood re-make. Which is a huge mistake. As it usually is. Let’s just say the big filmmakers in Hollywood don’t give much of a shit for nuance, and they all have a stick up their ass about sex, and graphic sex, and have a talent for turning on-screen intimacy into ludicrous, kitschy b-grade porn. Which would be the greatest, and most disrespectful and disgusting tragedy a re-make could suffer.
The original title, in Swedish, is translated as “Men who Hate Women.” And it is entirely a movie about violence towards women. It fits into a genre populated with classic titles like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs, but never has a more honest and disturbing discourse about sexual violence towards women been shown to a popular audience. I once heard someone say that the history of serial killers is all about violence towards women. I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to counter this statement.
Perhaps the most upsetting part of the film is the violence and sexual assaults of strong women. Women who refuse to be victims despite being continually victimized. These women aren’t “rape victims” in that they challenge our cultural assumptions about what a rape victim looks like: weak. Obviously this is not true, a victim of rape could be anybody, even a man. The movie, in many ways, shatters stereotypes about the kind of women who suffer at the hands of sexual abuse. Yet it sheds light on the troubling reinforced stereotypes of rape victims as well.
Lisbeth Salander is the movie’s female protagonist. She is striking and edgy, androgynous and a brilliant computer hacker with a violent (and mysterious) past. One of the first scenes we see her in she is reporting to a new “guardian” figure as is required since she was institutionalized in the past and now must adhere to rules governing her freedom.
Immediately it is obvious the guy is an insane pervert. He abuses his authority and asks her personal and graphic questions about sex, and demands she co-operate. He immediately revokes her freedom and autonomy by taking control of her finances, despite the fact she is financially independent and makes her own money. He is slimy and disgusting and revolting. He is a misogynist fucking pig to the most extreme level. But he’s not a caricature. He is very real. People like this do exist and do get to prey on those who don’t hold positions of authority. It is terrifying.
Lisbeth’s second meeting with him she asks for money to purchase a new computer, as hers was broken by a gang of thugs who spilled beer on her (she gets away by threatening them with a broken glass bottle, and manages to scare the shit out of an entire group of ‘badass’ guys). But her guardian won’t give her the money, and forces her to give him a blowjob in exchange. The scene is excruciating to watch. It is disgusting. Lisbeth is a smart, strong woman who should not be forced to submit to this degradation, especially since her capacity to defend herself was just amply demonstrated in the subway. But she submits, because he is in the position of power. The dynamics of power and the culling of Lisbeth’s strength and degradation of Lisbeth herself is painful.
Afterward, we watch as she washes her mouth out with antibacterial soap. She is rewarded with a cheque less than the amount she requested. Another power-play and slap in the face. Her guardian is putting a value to Lisbeth, and reducing her to a sexual object.
As an audience member, I found myself, after asking myself the question how is it that fuckers like this – perverted and disgusting people – can rise to the top and be allowed to take sexual privilege with those who must bend to their power (and Lisbeth in this situation is not in a credible position to make claims against her guardian – her past has somehow stripped her of her credibility, which is monumentally unjust and yet another daily occurrence in the world), but why Lisbeth, given her amazing skills at hacking into even the most locked down computers and systems, never tried to do so to her guardian upon their first meeting? Doubtless this man would have something incriminating in his files. Child pornography comes to mind.
My asking why Lisbeth didn’t do so is not me asking “why didn’t she prevent her own sexual assault” (don’t make me go into victim blaming) – let’s make that clear. My question is why did the writers choose to take the sexual assault to a disturbing and violent conclusion that they, in keeping true to Lisbeth’s strengths and skills, could have prevented?
Gratuitous sexual violence? Rape-revenge? Catharsis? Apparent Justice?
I’m not entirely certain. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Does it add a certain dimension to the film? Yes and no.
The scene I am talking about, of course, is the culmination of the sexual abuse Lisbeth endures at the hands of her guardian into full-fledged, fucked up, violent rape.
Lisbeth arrives at his house to ask for more money. He brings her to the bedroom and immediately punches her so hard in the face she falls, unconscious, onto the bed, which he then handcuffs her to and ties her legs down. He proceeds to beat and rape her (anally, it is later implied) for two fucking hours. Of course, we only get to see an agonizing five or so minutes of this.
I have seen a lot of rape scenes in cinema. This was the most difficult to watch. It was profoundly upsetting and horrifying. This kind of violence shouldn’t be happening.
If one good thing can be said about this scene (other than the disturbingly great acting), is that it was hopefully jarring enough to some audience members to wake them the fuck up. This happens. This is a reality. This is something that needs to be addressed.
After her guardian has had enough of raping her, he lets Lisbeth go. Without her money.
But it turns out, Lisbeth had a camera in her back (which does make sense – she works for a security company and thus has extensive knowledge about and access to such equipment) and got more than she bargained for.
Perhaps the reason the writers (of both film and movie) decided to have this act happen is to allow for the cathartic, though morally blurry, rape revenge. Which, I have to admit, is disgustingly psychologically satisfying to watch. There is something, probably, wrong with that.
Lisbeth returns to the surprised house of her guardian armed with a taser, her camera, duct tape, and a tattoo gun.
She tases her guardian in his neck.
She ties him up and gags him with the duct tape.
She rapes him in the ass with a dildo until he cries, and kicks him viciously in the kidneys several times.
She puts on the video she got when he raped her, and forces him to watch the entire two hours of it, and afterward sets her terms: she controls her finances, he never contacts her, after one year he recommends her autonomy. Or the tape gets exposed.
Once he agrees, she tattoos onto his chest in large writing:
I AM A RAPIST, SADIST PIG
Which is perhaps the best part.
But what is unnerving is the the only way the film offers to meet and overcome the power and violence of rapists is to use that same power and violence against them. Yes, he was deserving of every minute of it. But it remains morally ambiguous. Additionally, it is implied that Lisbeth cannot go the police or any kind of institution that professes to protect and administer justice because a) they wouldn’t take her seriously and b) they would not do enough. The system is broken and does not help victims of this kind of violence. Lisbeth works outside of it, and she is already an outcast from society because she is still held accountable for former violence.
Harriet Vanger, the film’s “missing girl,” is also a strong woman who is subject to horrifying abuse that is not illuminated until the end of the film. Her disappearance decades before is connected with the ritualistic and religiously-driven, anti-Semitic murders of other women. Here the themes continue to be psychologically disturbing, as Nazi experimentation and abuses are harnessed as a vehicle for the motivation behind the killings. Harriet, it seems, knew something.
Harriet, it is also revealed at the end of the film, was a survivor. Her father and elder brother were the ones killing women – and (surprise), her elder brother was still at it after their father’s death, keeping women in his sterile basement to torture, rape, and kill them. He kept meticulous photographic records of each woman he killed. And, he expresses a well-worn sentiment about his victims: they were nobodies, immigrants and prostitutes. Nobody misses them. A sad and fucked-up truth that allows countless serial killers to get away with committing multiple, sick crimes.
But both Harriet’s brother, Martin, and their father sexually abused Harriet. Violently and together. It was their father who initiated Martin into the world of strangling women to death (there is profound commentary here about indoctrination into violence and the violence of acceptable masculine culture, and the acceptability of violence as a way to assert power. Although it is not in the context of this film, see my Fight Club post if you’re interested). But one day, Harriet has had enough, and runs towards the lake bordering their family property in hopes of escaping using the boat. Her father chases her down and brags, drunkenly, about the women he’s killed. Harriet hits him over the head with an oar, and then holds him under the water until he drowns – pushing the boat out to the lake to make it look like an accident.
But Martin sees this happen. So, fearing her life, Harriet fled. Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist (the main character & male protagonist) find Harriet and, of course, bring her home to her elated uncle.
Lisbeth chases a fleeing Martin down the freeway, and Martin ends up crashing his car and burning alive with Lisbeth watches and does nothing.
Mikael later asks Lisbeth why she did not help Martin.
Because, Lisbeth explains, he was a man who hated women, who was sick and disgusting. Do not victimize him, he made his choice – he chose what to be despite what his father may or may not have done to him.
And this is the crux of the film: what is justice to crimes that are so disgustingly and outrageously unjust (rape, murder, torture, being a Nazi, crimes committed against an entire group of people, genocide, incest, sexually abusing one’s child, sexually abusing ANY child)? Is it really just about equalizing – an eye for an eye? About women being violent to violent men in order to level the playing field? Perhaps, but more likely not. There is no real answer given to the question, just an uncomfortable stance on both the main character’s parts.
Lisbeth was, it appears, morally fine with watching Martin burn to death. He deserved it.
Mikael claims he would have tried to help Martin, and that his violence and insanity was mostly due to a troubled childhood.
Somewhere in between these two realms might lie an answer. Until then, the film poses a reality: women are sexually abused, tortured, and raped by authority figures including their own families (perhaps especially their own families) on a regular basis. Authority figures meant to help them more often than not don’t, or can’t, because their hands are tied by flawed systems built and maintained by a culture of masculine violence. The only way these women can escape is often through their death, or meeting force with force, because there is no real institution to truly help them escape. That, and sexual torment shreds sanity and psychological stability.
If anything, the film shouldn’t be taken as merely another crime-thriller, but as a discourse on the pervasive sexual violence against women in culture, and should raise difficult but hard-hitting questions about how this can be prevented, and how sexual offenders should be dealt with. Is justice a possibility?
There shouldn’t be a need for justice in these cases. Simply, it shouldn’t fucking happen. We should not be continuing to live in and support a culture where this is the norm.
And that, I think, is the main point of the film. To bear witness and know, acutely, this isn’t entertaining, this is upsetting, and it should not be allowed to continue.
(I’m slowly catching up on all the things I have been meaning to write about for the past two months. There will be more to come.)