A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2011

Rank:  #11


2010, no MPAA rating, 152 mins.


Lisbeth Salander: Noomi Rapace / Mikael Blomkvist: Michael Nyqvist / Erika Berger: Lena Endre / Henrik Vanger: Sven-Bertil Taube / Martin Vagner: Peter Haber / Lawyer: Peter Andersson

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev / Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg / Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson


In Swedish with English subtitles

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a Swedish crime noir, murder/mystery thriller that is as evocatively stylish as it is finely plotted and impeccably acted.  The film also does something with a confidence and efficiency that many standard, run-of-the-mill Hollywood suspense films fail to do: it combines its gritty and bleak atmosphere with an enthralling whodunit that focuses more on a slow and methodical build up of discovery.  The film clocks in at two hours and a half hours, but the pacing never once gives away that running time away, nor does it promote frequent watch checking.  Even with the sheer complexity of the underlining plot and its leisurely, but meticulous, build up, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is rarely tedious nor dull: it lures you into its seedy, harrowing, and oftentimes shocking story with an uncommon precision and skill. 

The story of the film is, in itself, derivative on paper: a decades-long unsolved murder with a limited number of prime suspects that is tackled by a very unlikely pair of intrepid individuals that become obsessed with the intrigue of cracking it.  The underlining premise here has been done countless times before, but what makes THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO feel fresh, invigorating, and endlessly compelling is how it uses low key and sparse direction and a pair of impeccably cast actors with terrific chemistry to sell the film.   The murder/mystery elements are indeed involving, to be sure, but I found myself almost more entranced by the two main characters and their interaction while trying to solve their mutual case than with the case itself.  What's so terrific here is that these two principle performers are – despite their characters’ obvious differences – so natural and genuine together.  The title character in particular is compulsively absorbing enough to occupy our interest alone. 

The tattooed one of the pair is the 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander (played in an empowered performance of feminine ferocity and raw nerve by the amazing Noomi Rapace) and to judge her by her façade would be a grave mistake.  She’s a young, bisexual, deceptively pretty, and disturbingly anti-social Goth girl that sports multiple piercing and tattoos with a ritualistic savvy.  She has an almost animalistic, predatory look to her, a woman that you may not wish to run into in a dark and secluded alley, and she does indeed exhibit an uncontrolled hostility towards others that suggests mental illness.  What her outward appearance hides is an extraordinary talent for computer hacking, researching, and deductive logic.  She could easily defeat the most hardened adversary in a staring contest with her icy and detached gaze, but at the heart of Lisbeth lurks a fiendishly clever and resourceful investigator.  That...and she's very, very tough.

She eventually becomes a very unlikely collaborator with the film’s other character, and he could not be any more different.  He's a very ordinary, passive, and calm spoken middle-aged journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (played with a serene and restrained calm and charisma by Michael Nyqvist), publisher and investigative journalist for Millenium magazine and an amateur detective.  As the film opens Mikael is on a personal downward spiral: he has just been found guilty for libel against a Swedish tycoon and is now facing a brief prison sentence.  However, he is several months away from committing himself to his fate and now must settle any commitments he has or to take on any other personal projects. 

Mikael has professionally maintained a sterling reputation for many as intelligent and highly ingenious investigator that is able to get the job done where others have failed.  He certainly catches the eye of an elderly billionaire named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) who has been trying to exorcize one personal demon before he inevitably dies.  Living alone and having never fathered children of his own, Henrik has been depressed and reclusive for decades over the loss of his beloved niece Harriet, who vanished one day without a trace and whose body was never found.  His only clue is geographical: the bridge to her island was cut off the day of her disappearance, which has lead Henrik to assume that – because the bridge was inaccessible – the murderer must be one member of the Vanger family that resided there at the time.  He seems to harbor an unnatural and festering hatred for all of his family, and three of his siblings in particular; there were Nazi sympathizers at one point. 

While Mikael begins his rather exhaustive research into the case, he eventually discovers that his own computer is being hacked by someone that seems to share his passion for solving this case, who just happens to be Lisbeth.  Before the pair do indeed hook up and pool their resources, Lisbeth (an ex-con) finds herself in a dreadful predicament with her current guardian and parole officer.  Her last one died and she is now placed under the “care” of a new one that not only has deeply unethical motives, but also emerges as a totally depraved and sick sexual pervert.  He controls her money and forces her to perform unseemly sexual chores on him in exchange for him releasing her funds…and to report her as being on good behavior to the board.  One evening altercation in particular goes horribly for Lisbeth, but after surviving the ordeal of her hellish experience, she manages to have an ace up her sleeve to enact revenge on this depraved monster in a scene that will simultaneously make viewers pump their fists in the air with satisfaction or cover their eyes in wincing apprehension. 

Nonetheless, both Lisbeth and Mikael do manage to connect and he mixes his research ingenuity and focus with her adept abilities with a keyboard and mouse to make some serious headway into the Vanger case.  This pairing provides the film’s focal point of enthrallment:  Lisbeth is representative of digital, New Age technology and Mikael is definitely of the analogue old school approach, and that dichotomy makes them a fearsome duo.  There is also the requisite sexual tension and attraction between them, but the film never dwells on it in perfunctory manner.  He seems oddly attracted to her and her abilities as a cryptologist and she perhaps finds him a “safe” and nurturing man in a world where men have abused her, both as a child (hinted at in a vague, but chilling flashback) and recently.  They share the passion of solving a seemingly unsolvable case, but when it takes decidedly dark detours into religion, human sacrifices, and all sorts of inhuman erotic perversions, it then it becomes clear that they will certainly need one another to bring this case to successful closure. 

Again, the interplay between these two characters almost raises the film above its more routine mystery plot.  The film becomes almost a clinical character piece as much as it is a mesmerizing detective yarn.  The dynamic between Lisbeth and Mikael is also unique: how nifty is it to have a thriller where the male character is the reserved and meek mannered protagonist and the female is the fiery, tough as nails and rough and tough muscle of the pair?  Nyqvist’s low key and understated portrayal of Blomkvist is kind of thankless is this regard: a lesser actor would have made blandly portrayed him as one note and gutlessly inadequate, but here Nyqvist suggests a sharply quick-witted and vulnerable sleuth that knows he’s in over his head, but his zeal for the case drives him.  And Rapace, a Swedish-Icelandic actress, is an absolute cauldron of introverted anger, untamed valor, and extraordinary vengefulness.  She goes through unspeakable sexual horrors through this film, but she emerges from the ashes of these moments like a vengeful investigative archangel that does not want to be messed with.  It’s impossible not to be totally enraptured with Rapace all throughout the film; she's an amazingly magnetic and commanding screen presence.

As cold, shocking, and nightmarish as the film is throughout (the sexual violence presented is graphic, intense, and truly frightening without being sensationalistic), THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is also a film dripping with environmental details and atmosphere.  Much like another recent thriller, GHOST WRITER, this film creates a dark, forbidding, and brooding mood of despair with the way its director, Niels Arden Oplev, uses the bitterness of the Scandinavian landscapes to the right unsettling effect.  His direction overall abstains from heavy-handed usage of lame aesthetic flourishes and instead grounds the film’s universe in a lean and economical visual style that allows the story and characters to shine through.  The stark harshness of the look of the film directly coincides with its themes of sexual abuse/violence, historical atrocities and crimes that never seem to vanish, and corporate malfeasance that pollutes modern society.  

Of course, these themes were paramount in the source material itself, “Män som hatar kvinnor” (Men Who Hate Women) that was written by the late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson and was published after he died in 2004.  His life alone is worthy of film treatment: Larsson was a politically entrenched writer and worked as an editor for Swedish journals and publications while becoming instrumental in exposing Swedish extreme right and racist organizations.  His political advocacy and occupation in life obviously echoed the Blomkvist character, not to mention that the strong feminist subtext to the Lisbeth persona owes much to his social-justice crusades.  When Larsson died he left three unpublished manuscripts, which would form the "Millennium Trilogy", the first book which was made into this film.  Astoundingly, he became the second best selling author in the entire world and by March of this year his trilogy sold more than 27 million copies in 40 countries. 

As far as THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is concerned, this is an exemplary well-oiled and moody detective thriller and a triumphantly compelling start to a trilogy of films (the other two being THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, which were filmed back-to-back-to-back with TATTOO and have been released already in Sweden and the rest of Europe).  There has been word that David Fincher will remake the first film and potentially the others for American consumption, which I think is both unavoidable and kind of unnecessary, even under his capable hands: This Swedish import is the one to seek out and savor as it has a story and thematic intricacy, an invigoratingly minimalist and elegant directorial eye, and, in particular, an incredibly authoritative and explosive performance by Rapace, playing one of the most fascinating female protagonists in years.  All of this will be very difficult to duplicate with Hollywood sensibilities.  Rumor has it that Kristen Stewart may be up for the part in Ficher's appropriated version.  Trust me, she (and perhaps all of the other American actresses that are speculated to be cast) won't be able to touch what Rapace has accomplished here.  Not by a long shot.  



THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has no MPAA rating, but it is definitely recommended for adult viewers only.


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