Vengeance and Compassion in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and How the Book of Leviticus Fits In


SPOILERS:  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a truly satisfying murder mystery with a complex plot, unrelenting violence, and unique characters.  This is a bleak film that explores how people get psychologically twisted and whether a history of past abuse should be a consideration in how harshly we judge them. It is not for the squeamish with scenes of graphic sex and violence.

Mikael, an unjustly discredited investigative journalist, is tapped by an elderly corporate magnate, Henrick Vanger, to investigate a decades old family mystery. The cover story is that Mikael is writing a Vanger family history. Lisbeth is a goth hacker with body piercings and, yes, a dragon tattoo who is contracted by Henrick’s nephew Martin through some computer connections at Vanger Corporation to keep tabs on Mikael’s research. Without this girl with the dragon tattoo the story would be just another murder mystery, but Lisbeth bring the noir to this detective story.

While the murder plot is complex the psychological exploration is even more compelling. Lisbeth is smart, independent, and very damaged. Lisbeth is unwilling to let go of her anger. It seems to be the force that’s holding her together. But this anger isn’t uncontrolled rage but focused, almost detached vengeance. She finds power in revenge.

Lisbeth is gifted, or cursed, with a photographic memory. She remembers every detail and has a gift for connecting them. She also has been through hellish abuse and can’t forget it. Her family has failed her. The system that was supposed to protect her has failed her. Lisbeth is unwilling to let anyone off the hook and is ready to take revenge on anyone who hurts her.

Mikael is a man of mercy. He even shows compassion for the killer after learning some of his background. He seems to recognize that horrible things that happen to people can wreck their moral balance. He seems to believe that even people with seared consciences can be fixed, or at least understood with some compassion.

Lisbeth will have none of that. “You choose who you want to be,” she tells him. She holds the killer as fully responsible for his actions as she holds herself. Mikael continues to reach out to Lisbeth trying to offer her a secure relationship. She finds satisfaction in sex that she initiates and controls, but fears intimacy. Lisbeth seems to trust Mikael and love him as much as she will let herself love.

But ultimately Lisbeth rejects vulnerability for vengeance and the sense of control that comes with it. She has to be able to hate and avenge in order to feel safe, so she piles on more and more baggage.  Mercy threatens her hard-won and precarious sense of power. When she encounters it, she has to run.

There are revealing parallels between Lisbeth and two other characters in the film. One character shares Lisbeth’s history of horrific abuse at the hands of people who should have inspired trust. Their stories act as social commentary concerning women who are robbed of power and dignity by men. In fact, the Swedish title of the film was Men Who Hate Women. Both women resorted to violence in self defense. Both long for family connection but reach out with extreme caution. Both live in fear of being discovered. While the other woman is hiding out geographically, Lisbeth hides out emotionally. She will not let anyone really know her.

It is striking that Mikael actually has less information about the damage in Lisbeth’s background than he does the killer’s. The audience is given little more information with which to judge. Both Lisbeth and the killer have been impacted by abuse and evil. They both seem to engage in violent acts with little or no remorse, but with vastly different motives. The killer enjoys killing while Lisbeth simply craves justice.

Perhaps it is Lisbeth’s unrelenting sense of justice and willingness to mete out vengeance on wrongdoers that makes the use of the Book of Leviticus in the plot understandable. So much of the film is about justice and Leviticus is, after all, part of Old Testament law. It outlines judgments for those who violate the moral code. Motives and circumstances rarely are considered. The law is as unrelenting as Lisbeth herself.

While watching evil people punished is sort of satisfying,  it is Mikael’s compassion, even for the most evil characters,  that acts as a moral anchor for the movie.  It is because we see Lisbeth through Mikael’s eyes of love and mercy that she becomes a sympathetic character. We hope for her redemption and healing because we too judge her with mercy.

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