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Why 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' isn't dark enough

Josh Larsen

It's being billed as the ultimate piece of Christmas counter-programming: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a serial-killer thriller featuring rape, murder and dismemberment, opening on the eve of the year-end holidays. Yet the irony about this nasty piece of popular entertainment is that it isn't dark enough.

Adapted from the best-selling novels by Stieg Larsson (already made into a Swedish film trilogy), this is nihilism couture, misery as accessory. It's a posture struck early on with the striking opening-credit sequence, in which thick oily water trickles across the screen and eventually pours over a pair of violent human figures. Pulsing and black, it could easily be a music video from Nine Inch Nails circa 1994 (indeed, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor did the movie's score).

That's just the beginning of the blackness. As it tells the tale of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who teams up with antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to solve the 40-year-old disappearance of a teen girl, the movie deals in all sorts of ugliness. It's distressing, but in a surface way; the gory details here are like ornaments adorning a decrepit tree.

What's missing? The real sense of dismay and dread that coursed through the early films of director David Fincher. {C}Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with Brad Pitt as a Forrest Gump figure who ages backwards, is considered to be his "softie" movie, but in many ways "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is softer. (I've argued that "Benjamin Button" is really about the inevitability of loss.) Go back further in Fincher's career and you'll find a true heart of darkness: Brad Pitt's "hero" getting a head handed to him in "Seven;" the self-annihilation of "Fight Club;" the escape of a real-world killer in "Zodiac." These are movies that rub our faces in the sin of this world and leave us lying there, left to brush the muck off ourselves, if we can.

There is something honest in that. Even Christians, who know that nihilism fails to see beyond act two - the Fall - in God's story of redemption, can respect a movie committed to its principles, however dark. True nihilism is a misguided tragedy, but it's a tragedy of conviction.

There isn't much conviction to "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," nihilistic or otherwise. The movie isn't about anything more than the thrill of getting revenge on the bad guys. (The line that got the biggest reaction from the preview audience? Salander's climactic request, in reference to the bad guy: "Can I kill him?") "The Girl With Dragon Tattoo" wants to spike the eggnog during this holiday season, but it will take more than a high-toned revenge flick to do that.

(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure