Commentary: Graphic scene in 'Dragon Tattoo' a justifiable exploration of rape's horror
A vile creep manacles a young woman to the bed and rapes her so violently she can barely walk afterward. The camera unflinchingly captures much of the brutal violation -- her struggles to get away, his obese body forcing himself atop her, her piercing wail.
We watch. Some of us turn away and close our eyes.
The graphic, harrowing attack appears in -- of all things -- a major holiday film release, the R-rated mystery "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," based on the lurid but immensely popular first novel in the best-selling trilogy.
For many moviegoers, the explicit scene is an endurance test, as excruciating to soldier through as when James Franco used a blunt pocket knife to hack away at the gristle and bone of his own pinned arm in "127 Hours."
And like many rape sequences, the one in "Dragon" -- along with another violent scene depicting the savage justice the lead character Lisbeth Salander exacts on her odious attacker and an earlier one in which he demands oral sex -- will surely offend some. But it will also be viewed as necessary by others and perhaps even leave a few perplexed that someone might blast the filmmaker for having shown way too much.
That these provocative sequences can trigger such a potent and varied response is no surprise. Rape scenes in movies, including the assault on Dakota Fanning's character in 2009's "Hounddog" and the notorious nine-minute one in the 2002 French import "Irreversible," set off a firestorm of controversy and outraged many. (Although much was written about those films, American audiences made sure to avoid both. "Hounddog," in particular, was resoundingly panned by most critics; the art-house film "Irreversible" has some supporters.)
But "Dragon" is different. It's packaged as entertainment and is a major Hollywood release. It also is one of the year's better-reviewed films. (I, too, gave it a glowing review.)
Word that "Dragon" so graphically depicts the harrowing rape of the Lisbeth Salander character (played by "The Social Network's" Mara Rooney) has made a couple people I know reconsider whether they'll even see it. And that's entirely understandable.
The question, then, is: Did the Oscar-nominated director David Fincher really need to make that attack so viciously explicit? I say yes, with qualifiers. Considering the source material and the dark vision he and the late author Stieg Larsson have strategically set forth, that scene sticks true to the story's disturbing themes and provides crucial insight into Salander, the film's fascinating and whip-smart central character.
Did it bother me -- someone who's a confirmed horror film buff? Of course! As well it should.
Rape is a despicable, repugnant act of violence, and both Fincher's film and the excellent 2009 Swedish version are right to portray it in all its horror. It is entirely debatable whether that scene could have been shortened and accomplished the same goal. But remember, you could say the same about extreme violent content in other films. This is Fincher's grim vision, and I'd hate to see someone go in and splice up "The Departed," "Saving Private Ryan" or "Pulp Fiction" because they show scenes that are hard for many of us to watch.
There's no denying that Salander's rape and her retaliation are essential plot developments that further the story and make us better understand why she is so fierce and so feral around others. With her Mohawk, piercings and cut-to-the-bone glare, the computer hacker is an unforgettable force and presence. She's also a true survivor -- one of the strongest and most compelling female characters to come around in years.
But reading about the awfulness perpetrated on her in a book and watching it transpire on screen are entirely different experiences. Films -- especially ones that depict acts of violence -- have the power to burnish images into our subconscious forever. Books undeniably create powerful visions in our imagination, but there's a more visceral jab to the senses when packaged visuals come at us on screen.
Still, just like books, movies deserve freedom, and should not shy away from provocative or controversial subject matter. Fincher certainly never has. Just watch "Fight Club" or "Se7en."
Rape scenes don't always need to be graphic to be disturbing. Some recent films have evoked the horror in less explicit ways, including "Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire" (incest) and "Martha Macy May Marlene" (in which the head of a cult sneaks into bed and rapes a young woman while she sleeps), to name a few. They're quieter films with different tones, and the filmmakers did what made artistic sense in context and tone.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a different kind of movie. It is first and foremost a genre picture -- a compelling thriller about moral and societal corruption, along with other thought-provoking issues. One of its overriding themes explores the evil that men can do to women -- a deeply personal topic for the late Larsson, who reportedly witnessed a gang rape when he was a teenager.
That's exactly why "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" must disturb us. It must make us uncomfortable and must make us squirm in our seats. Because when it does, we're forced to face of one of the world's evils in all its gut-wrenching horror.