The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Heating up the art house cinemas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is two and a half hours, Swedish, in subtitles, and is absent any familiar faces, and audiences can’t seem to get enough. Based on the international best-selling novel, this independent thriller was the highest grossing European film for 2009 and deceased author Stieg Larsson’s two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (sounds like a lot of risky behavior for this girl) have also been made into movies with the same cast. So now that America is caught in the midst of Dragon mania, we all won’t have to wait long for the ongoing adventures of the journalist and the Gothic investigator. Both sequels are planned for release this summer, meaning that the entire trilogy will unwind in theaters over the course of only a few brief months. That’s one thing that has to please American audiences — instant gratification. For those unhip to the world of Lisbeth Salander, get ready to take notes because she’s likely to become an indie film icon, at least for an older, well-read demographic (think: your parents).

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is an investigative journalist sentenced to jail for 6 months after losing a libel case against a large shady corporation. Before he serves his prison sentence, Mikael is approached by a wealthy businessman, Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube), convinced that his niece, Harriet, was murdered and her murderer is still taunting him 40 years later. Henrik Vagner lives with various other family members on a remote island. The mysterious clan has some serious skeletons in their closet, and Henrik believes ones of his family members, apart of the powerful Vagner Group, is guilty. Mikael takes refuge on the island and begins to comb over old police documents looking for any overlooked clues. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) inserts herself into the case. She’s an expert computer hacker and hired by Henrik Vagner to compile a background check of Mikael. But her interest did not end with her assignment. She has hacked into Mikael’s computer and furtively spies on Mikael’s progress. She e-mails him some key breaks in the case and joins Mikael on the island. Together they make rapid progress finding out what happened to Harriet all those years ago, and a serial killer makes note of their encroaching progress.

Thankfully, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller that respects its audience’s intellect by not having to spell out every damn detail, and people, there are a lot of damn details. While the movie feels complete, it still leaves much to the imagination to fill in character back-stories, connect the plot dots, and interpret all those silent glances and meditative stares (granted, it might all get filled in following two sequels). A prime example is when Mikael covets Lisbeth’s photographic memory, telling her what a terrific advantage that must be, and a small pensive look from Lisbeth says all we need. It’s enough to make us re-examine what we think we know concerning her background, and the rest of the movie follows this model. I also appreciated that every break in the case came from good detective work and not some swishy super computer stuff. Though Lisbeth is an expert hacker, nothing these characters do is out of the realm of reality unlike other tech-heavy detectives. The plot is tied in knots and we have all sorts of various suspects and angles. The central mystery needs to be interesting for this movie to work, and it is … after it gets into a second gear. A girl’s disappearance 40 years ago isn’t enough to grab you until the more sinister and sordid elements come out into the fray. It also hurts that there’s a clear disparity when it comes to character interest. Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.

Lisbeth is an unorthodox choice for a researcher given the fact that she’s pierced, punky, and full of attitude and ink, including a certain titular dragon tattoo. But she’s also fiercely intelligent, resourceful, intuitive, and wounded, which makes her a fairly fascinating character. She’s an exciting mystery of a character. She’s wounded and defensive but cavalier and intentionally confrontational at the same time, an exciting conflict. Her attitude is roughly, “So what if I dress as I do? So what if I have a healthy sexual appetite? So what if I am a woman? I demand to be treated with respect.” Lisbeth commands attention even though she feels uncomfortable being gazed at. She’s more than some female fantasy protagonist, though a punky, bisexual ass-kicking gal will fit the bill for some, she is a full-bodied character and a terrific break from the traditional investigative heroes of mysteries.

I asked myself midway through if the aesthetics were standing in for character; if you stripped away all that punk rock glamour and the shock value of a “Goth PI” than would there be anything compelling left (I was sort of thinking of the Gothic lab tech on America’s quizzically #1 TV show of the moment, the alphabet soup-friendly NCIS)? The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness. Rapace has to play many different elements through a specific prism of emotional reserve, which makes her character, and her performance, less showy. It makes for a very good performance but ultimately leaves the final judgment of Rapace in question. Despite the international acclaim, Lisbeth isn’t exactly a star-making role. Yet, at least.

The story is awash in details, which is both a positive and negative reflection of the screenplay. There’s likely too many plot details for one screenplay and several elements feel like they may be integral when they really turn out to be incidental, like Nazi ancestry and the lone bridge off the island. Don’t get me all excited with Nazi ancestry and then have it become incidental to the plot. Nonetheless, it takes a good deal of time to process and familiarize all the numerous expository groundwork of the case, and time is what The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has to offer. At 150 minutes, the movie follows a pretty languid pace and doesn’t get moving until an hour in when our two leads join forces. Echoing that deliberate sense of pacing are the sparse and snowy landscapes of Sweden communicating isolation and looming danger. I can pretty much guarantee that the Hollywood adaptation in the works will not be nearly as leisurely with its pacing. The film’s resolution is very drawn out but that’s due to the many niggling plot threads that need to be attended to. It makes for a satisfying albeit mildly exhausting conclusion.

The book’s original title was “Men Who Hate Women” and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing Swedish thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies appeal.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an arresting and entertaining thriller that occasionally ducks a little too low into the gutter for my tastes (I’m really taken aback at how rape-heavy it is). The mystery works, though it’s more complicated thanks to an excess of detail and not necessarily a complex narrative. The characters, in particular Lisbeth Salander, are what make this movie work. Lisbeth is a captivating lead character and only promises to get more interesting in those future sequels. In many ways, this is a mystery for grown-ups, not just in content but also in approach, with the relaxed pace, subtlety, and moral ambiguity. Having never read the books, I can now see what all the fuss is about, and most of it is warranted. Still, I’m holding out my final judgment until those other two editions of the Adventures of Lisbeth and Crew hit theaters. The movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an exciting opening entry into the world of Lisbeth Salander, international woman of extreme ass kicking in fine fashion to boot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on April 16, 2010, in 2010 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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