This Friday, David Fincher’s newest film Gone Girl will be released in theaters, and it’s already being called one of his best. While that will likely be debated once it hits a larger audience, for now it’s riding the hype machine. Due to this, I figured I’d tackle one of my personal favorites by Fincher and one that I believe offers up his best female character to date.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released in 2011 and was based on the best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson. The story follows the disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), as he investigates the disappearance of a wealthy man’s niece from 40 years ago. He is aided by the punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who strives to bring justice to any man who has terrorized women.
Fincher, despite the acclaim that goes along with his name, isn’t exactly known for his expertise in painting fully realized portraits of women. While there have certainly been female roles in his films, they’ve rarely been prominent until recently with this and Gone Girl. Lisbeth Salander is easily one of Fincher’s best characters, and Mara’s performance is tremendous, effortlessly displaying the guarded vulnerability behind a tough-as- nails exterior.
However, what makes the character so great in both the book and film(s) is that she isn’t simply delegated to the “tough chick” archetype. When she fights she’s feral and based purely on survival instinct, and she’s cold and to the point with people with whom she isn’t comfortable. Despite these character traits, she doesn’t lack empathy, and she has the ability to build human connections as displayed with Craig’s character.
Early in the film, Lisbeth’s character is brutalized by her government-appointed caretaker, and it’s traumatic and difficult to watch – as scenes of such a nature should be. So often I see in pop culture women being assaulted, and it’s either used as a flippant way to cause their male counterpart anguish, it happens and then isn’t dealt with, or the woman is still sexualized despite being attacked. Rarely do I see sexual assault being dealt with tactfully or with respect toward the victim, and it’s something that needs to be changed in all forms of entertainment. Despite not being completely sure that Lisbeth’s attack is dealt with as well as I’d hope, it certainly is dealt with better than most other scenes in films that I’ve seen dealing with similar subjects. And, in the end, Lisbeth gets her revenge and keeps her agency as well as puts a stop to any future assaults performed by her attacker.
One of the most positive aspects of the film – and one that the advertising for this film totally missed the point of – was the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael. Never in the film does Lisbeth need to be rescued by him, nor does she ever have a breaking point that requires him to pick up the pieces. They begin as a working relationship and it turns into something more by the end, but regardless, Lisbeth is always her own person and won’t be swayed by his affections. She also is often the one saving him, and the one who is better equipped to deal with the horrors that they witness. She is the badass and he is the one who’s along for the ride. It helps that Craig and Mara share an astounding amount of chemistry.
It’s too bad that the film was sold with pictures of the two in character, with Mara being topless and draped all over Craig. Way to demean the characterizations in just a few photo spreads.
The film is far from perfect, but it offers a perspective that we don’t often see, particularly in Fincher films – or, even, in any of the films by directors who straddle the critical/general audience line. Lisbeth Salander is one of my favorite characters of all time because despite the damage done to her and despite the terrors she experiences and sees, she continues to fight, and that’s admirable in anyone. She is who she is and doesn’t fit into any one box, and so rarely do we get female characters who are both larger than life but also deal with real life problems.
We all love to witness admirable imperfection; the anti-hero. It’s just that we never really get to see the anti-hero be a woman.