Thursday, 5 January 2012

In Defence of Rooney Mara's Sensitive Salander

The following contains spoilers relating to the ending of the recent David Fincher adaptation of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'.

I'm unable to sleep and - in lieu of any new films to review in the first few weeks of January (call me closed minded but I have no desire to sit through 'The Iron Lady' unless I have to) - I thought I'd spitball here about something that's rattling around inside my head. It relates to the very end of the David Fincher/Steve Zaillian version of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' - which I found far more interesting and exciting than the glorified TV movie that came out of Sweden a couple of years back. In fact I'm listening to the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack as I type this.

At the end of this new version - and I've no idea whether this is accurate to Stieg Larsson's original novel or not - punk, computer hacker, motorcyclist, bisexual, tattoo-loving Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), unseen and from a distance, looks lovingly at male protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). She seems to want a future with him or at the very least some affection. However she sees he's leaving his office with a female colleague and rides off into the night, her hopes dashed - feeling betrayed and, we suspect, with any residual faith in men she might have had shattered.

I bring this up because a friend of mine took to Twitter tonight feeling "betrayed" that the "antihero succumbs to the Hollywood hunk" and I think that's a gross simplification. I get where she's coming from but I think she's wrong. And rather than explain why over a series of aggressive, timeline-hogging 140 character bursts I thought I'd do so here. This post is for you Abi.

I get why you might feel betrayed by the sight of a strong female character - whose raison d'etre is, pretty much, to give men the finger - seemingly smitten by Daniel "007" Craig at the end of the movie. Even those with the mildest sensitivity to gender politics will hear alarm bells ringing during that moment if viewed in those terms. But the more I've pondered this scene the more impressed I've become with the film - to the point where I feel driven to defend it at length and at 2am.

My defence of the offending scene can be divided into two neat categories. Firstly, to lead with the more dispassionate rebuttal, I find this climax to be a tidy piece of screenwriting from Steve Zaillian. Basically he creates an ending where none truly exists (at least in the Swedish version). This is our hero at the culmination of her arc: will she find a last shot at redemption in Craig? Can she live a "normal" life now? Or will she always be a damaged, untrusting outsider? The answers are "no", "no" and "yes" respectively.

The open-ended Swedish film (below) seems far more cynical to me. It ended in a way which suggested (and indeed yielded) further episodes of a grim detective serial. It acted as a pilot for a formula TV series, making us wonder "what ever will the mismatched duo solve next week?" Zaillian gives his version a pleasing sense of dramatic resolution, even if the ending itself is not exactly heart-warming. It also ensures the film isn't totally nihilistic and totally black hearted, which I think is a good thing.

This rather sombre, hopeless climax sees Lisbeth potentially doomed to play this avenging angel character for the rest of her life. That she rides off into the darkness alone, and further embittered, is not, to my mind at least, a typical "Hollywood" ending.

Secondly, and more to the point, this ending absolutely satisfied me in terms of what it said about the character. This is not the blank psychopath - that walking revenge fantasy with spikey hair - as played (to perfection) by Noomi Rapace. Her only visible emotions were barely concealed fury and contempt for humankind. In Fincher and Zaillian's version Lisbeth is a genuine and troubled person. She is allowed to show fear and distress. She is even allowed to smile. She is tough, for sure, but she is also vulnerable and in need of salvation. You never had any doubt Rapace would kick everbody's asses, whilst you worry about Rooney Mara even though she is super-smart and (as evidenced by the attempted mugging scene) not exactly helpless.

Crucially, it does not escape her own notice that she is increasingly as depraved as those who've wronged her and this is the film's single biggest strength.

In the Swedish version (my only other frame of reference for the character) she is a sexual predator when she - out of nowhere - decides to sleep with Blomkvist. In the "American" version (a tricky term in itself, with the film shot in  Sweden with a predominantly Swedish crew under the stewardship of the same Swedish production company) this scene plays differently. Here is an undercurrent that this is another manifestation of her own history, as a victim of sexual violence. She gives up her body very casually, not in the manner of one who is free and liberated but as one who has been desensitised against the act.

I think an extra layer of depth is revealed if we consider her backstory too: Lisbeth has spent most of her life in the custody of the state because she once set fire to her abusive father (a history hinted at in the opening credits, which run like an S&M enthusiasts version of a Bond title sequence). In a creepy kind of way she comes to see Blomkvist as a surrogate father - further complicating that ending, I think.

The relationship between Salander and Blomkvist is pleasingly nuanced. She is hostile when she first meets him, so I don't think Craig's "hunkiness" has much to do with anything. What she seems to respond to is (obviously) his desire to bring a killer of women to justice, but equally the fact that he is a loving, gentle father. There are several scenes which show us Blomkvist's teenage daughter and these seemingly exist solely to form this link in our mind. He is paternal and she craves a daddy. When she asks his permission before racing off to kill the baddie near the climax, is this a sign of weakness on her part? Perhaps. Perhaps there's even a trace of sadism. But I don't think it's as simple as a woman supplicating herself to a man.

It's also relevant to mention three key details in passing. Firstly, Lisbeth solves the central crime story faster than Craig (who is pretty lost without her). Secondly she saves him from certain death after he sheepishly blunders into the murderers house. It is then Lisbeth who pursues the villain to his end, having the final say. Thirdly, it's even Lisbeth that does Blomkvist's regular job for him: clearing his name (he's a journalist who's been falsely accused to making his stories up) and putting a major corporate criminal in prison. Lisbeth Salander three, Mikael Blomkvist nil.

This brings me back to that ending. When Mara looks at Craig she isn't seeing that rippling torso from the 'Casino Royale' promotional stills. Or even a great man who saved the world (he isn't). She sees the one person who hasn't let her down. The guy who's been nice to her and the guy who, in many ways, offers a shot at the father she never had. Again: this is creepy. But whatever you can say about it, it's not exactly what one would term a typical, cop-out, "sentimental" Hollywood ending even if she ended up with the guy. Which let's remember: she doesn't.

But let's brush all that to one side. Let's dismiss all of the above and take the text at face value, ignoring for a second all the themes and the arc of the character. Let's say she is in love with hunky Craig and is simply crestfallen when he doesn't seem to return her affections. I leave you with these questions: How is that ending either phony or anti-feminist or "Hollywood"? Doesn't heartbreak really happen to people? Doesn't love? Don't women get their feelings hurt? Speaking from personal experience, I know men do. Now I'm off to bed.


  1. That's a spot on analysis, Rob. Her motivations were pretty clear cut, though I didn't understand Blomkvist's motivation in building a relationship with her, and then instantly forgetting about it once the case was closed.

    I would never classify the ending as "Hollywood", but it's very "Finchian" in that it follows his repeated use of downbeat (some may say "sad") endings. The Social Network, Se7en, Ben Button, all follow this pattern.

  2. I really think you need to read the book....