Rebels don't endorse standard public health messages

This is an excellent interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s page-turner of the same name. For my sins, I read the novel and enjoyed it despite its sometimes crappy writing, because the story is compelling and the characters are fun. Both the main male character, Michael Blomquist, and the eponymous female lead Lisbeth Salander are excellent depictions of their particular archetypes[1]: crusading journalist and lunatic hacker, respectively. The movie brings them to life well, perhaps even improving on them through good acting (’cause lord knows they were held back in the original through bad writing!) It also brings out the setting, both the historical part and the modern Swedish setting, so that they were just exactly how I’d imagined them when I read the book. It also makes the investigation interesting, and you can understand how the combined talents of Blomquist and Salander are capable of solving a mystery that no one else managed to. It also managed to cut out some parts that would have made the movie too slow, and to interweave the three stories (Salander, Blomquist, and the historical part) nicely without being confusing or chaotic. This is surely good movie-making …

The acting was also great. The woman who played Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara, was superb in the role and did a brilliant job of holding together the tension, intelligence, viciousness and strangeness of that character without over-doing any of it, or pushing Salander into a stereotype of a hacker. Salander is a complex personality and a complex emotional story – simultaneously vulnerable and fragile and extremely tough, uncaring about convention but very aware of how other people think and feel – and Mara did a superb job of getting her right. In his own way, Blomquist, though superficially simpler, is also hard to get right, though perhaps more from a direction point of view: Blomquist is a man who respects women but doesn’t put them on a pedestal, who has deep passions but doesn’t lose control of them, and who probably isn’t a particularly expressive guy. Daniel Craig does a very good job of getting it right. The cast were also chosen so that everyone felt real, and many scenes that one might expect a movie remake to change, gloss over or misogynize were very well crafted.

This is an important and unavoidable problem in bringing this book to cinema: handling the gender relations. This is a book about getting vengeance on rapists and murderers of women, but it’s also a story about a young woman who falls in love with an older man (cliche 101!) and a couple of Scandinavians who have an open relationship. The temptation here for your average movie director is to make the rape scenes sexy or shallow, to make the young woman a victim of the man’s charm or the age-gap completely normal and believable, and to make the women in the open relationship young sexy babes, or just crazy fucked-up people. None of this happens: the rape scene is horrible and the vengeance enormously satisfying, while also repulsive; the young woman is not a victim of the older man’s charms, and the nature of their relations with other people are such that you understand the situation is not normal for him or for her – it’s the first such old man/young woman affair I’ve seen in a movie that feels believable. And the older women in the open relationship – 40 something career women – look their age, like attractive 40-something career women in control of their own lives and sexualities. It’s through Blomquist that we mainly encounter these people, and his approach to the women in his life is straightforward, respectful and understanding. A perfect counter-point to the men that he and Salander are engaged in foiling, who are sleazy liars who only know how to use people, and especially women, for their own gratification.

This movie also has one sex scene in it that really does describe the difference between a movie that depicts the real relations between modern men and women, and most of the rest of the American movie industry. The scene is nothing special, but its execution made me happy for its frankness and realism. We see the young woman and the older man having sex, but she is on top grinding away to her own orgasm, largely oblivious of him, and he is just kind of going along with it. In the end she comes and he doesn’t, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a sex scene where the woman gets something and the man gets nothing. Usually either the man comes or they both do, simultaneously, without any effort on his part except the glorious power of his amazing dick. The reality of course is that sex is not often like that, unless the girl is faking it, and everyone who has more than the barest experience of sex has experienced the woman who takes her own orgasm astride the man, often quite aggressively. It’s like the guy who made this movie actually wanted to show sex as it happens between real people who love each other, rather than as it is imagined in the minds of people who insist on reproducing the imaginary gender relations of the American culture industry. For that reason alone, the scene made me happy.

The flipside of these scenes, though, is that there is a lot of nasty stuff to wade through in this story. The rape scenes, graphic evidence from the murder scenes they are investigating, the final tense showdown, animal cruelty … if seedy under-belly-of-society type movies don’t appeal to you or you just can’t watch films that involve rape or the cruel mistreatment of women, then I suggest avoiding this one. You’re not going to get much satisfaction. If you can bear this sort of thing in order to see a good story and fine acting, and you can get pleasure from fairly nasty revenge scenes (I certainly can), then I recommend taking this one in on the big screen. In addition to a tense story, fine settings and excellent acting, it also has some very cool cinematography and a great soundtrack, so its well worth the effort if you can endure that sort of cruelty on screen. But you need to go in ready for some nastiness, and if you don’t think you are, then you probably should give it a miss …

fn1: Archetype is the word you use instead of “stereotype” when you enjoyed the book.