Small spoilers for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo follow.
Stuck in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel is a song that will always, for me, be associated with torture because of Reservoir Dogs. An entire generation associates Singin In The Rain not with the musical of the same name but a brutal rape in A Clockwork Orange. I can't hear Donovan's Atlantis without thinking about Billy Batts getting his brains bashed in at the bar in Goodfellas.
Soundtrack dissonance is an old cinematic trope, and it's especially effective when needledrops are used - when songs we know have their meanings twisted and changed by something terrible or sad or ugly happening onscreen. It's one of the biggest testaments to the power of the movies, that they can forever alter how we approach songs.
David Fincher knows how to use soundtrack dissonance; in his last great serial killer film, Zodiac, Fincher uses Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man incredibly (poor Donovan. He was just trying to make nice songs for the Age of Aquarius). I don't know that it had the impact of the songs I listed above, but it did manage to slightly recast the track in many minds. So why is that Fincher fails so miserably when attempting to do the same thing in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?
In the adaptation of Stieg Larsson's hugely popular novel, serial killer Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) plays Enya's Orinoco Flow (better known to most as the 'Sail Away' song) as he has investigator Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) captive in his torture dungeon. When the song comes on it elicits a titter in the audience, who is well familiar with the idea of soundtrack dissonance. The presence of this New Age fluff song surely means that shit is about to get really, really ugly in that torture dungeon.
And then Martin puts a plastic bag over Mikael's head, opens his shirt, menaces him with a knife, and that's it. The song plays, promising us depravities that will forever color our vision of Enya, but the most horrifying thing Martin really does is deliver a shitload of tedious exposition tying up a big chunk of the story. He talks about others he has killed in that dungeon, but the place is spotless, antiseptic. Mikael struggles for breath in a way that wouldn't be too intense for an 8 o'clock cop show on TV.
It's a total failure on Fincher's part. And it's a failure that encapsulates the entire film - a well-chosen bit of atmosphere used to absolutely no effect. By this point the film has already succumbed to a fatal case of design fetish, one that continues in the dungeon (why is Vanger listening to the song on a reel to reel tape machine? Why is he recording his murders on VHS? You have to assume he could have afforded an iPod or a Bloggie, but the design of those machines isn't as cool as the analog machines). On paper the idea of playing Orinoco Flow over a torture scene is incredible - it speaks to the mindset of the torturer, who is not approaching the situation maniacally but in a scary, calm manner - but in execution it is pointless, all signifier and no significance.
What's surprising is that I have seen a number of people say that the scene ruins the song for them. First of all I would have assumed the song would have ruined the song for you, but what's more I wonder how the scene did that. Has it now made Orinoco Flow forever associated with Stellan Skarsgard talking and talking and talking like a Bond villain? Interestingly, Daniel Craig is the recipient of much more brutal torture in the PG-13 Casino Royale; Orinoco Flow playing over that scene would have been interesting.
But maybe it's all for a purpose. Maybe The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is mean to function as a critique of design over quality - a script written at a rickety desk, intended to rage against Ikea.