It occurred to me while watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that director Niels Arden Oplev had achieved the tone and style that Martin Scorsese hoped to match in Shutter Island. But Oplev omits the hysteria, melodrama, and cheesy chills that we find in Scorsese’s picture for something much more disturbing: a dark world inhabited by plausible characters, but still retaining its popular pulp background. I haven’t read any of the novels by Swedish author Stieg Larsson (this film is the adaptation of the first in a series), but based on the content (and the fact that I can buy his books in my local grocery store) I don’t believe they are what we would call highbrow literature. That’s all right because Oplev rescues the potentially exploitative and melodramatic material; he pulls it up to the level of, if not high art, at least a really good movie. Some great films have been based on schlocky writing, like Double Indemnity, or remakes of bad movies, like Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. I always wonder why more filmmakers don’t tackle lowbrow literature instead of trying to make movies out of great books like Madame Bovary or Moby Dick. There is so much more room for error and disappointment when taking on those projects, but there ought to be a level of creative liberty when making trash. And when a filmmaker can turn it into a great movie, then there is an accomplishment worth noting. To me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women if we were to literally translate the Swedish title) feels like trash made into art.
The picture opens and it is winter is Sweden. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been convicted of libel against a powerful billionaire industrialist. Blomkvist maintains he was set up, but does not see the point of appealing the decision so in six months he will serve a three month jail term. He is approach by a wealthy recluse, Henrik Vanger, with a proposition; he wants the disgraced journalist, in the months before he serves his sentence, to help him find his beloved niece who disappeared over 40 years ago at a reunion of the Vanger family. Blomkvist accepts and embarks on a journey into the bitter, petty and creepy Vanger family and slowly becomes obsessed with the case of the missing girl himself.
Meanwhile a mysterious woman is following Blomkvist. Vanger wanted to be sure that the man didn’t have any skeletons of his own, so his lawyer commissioned a security company to conduct a background check on Blomkvist. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a goth computer hacking genius with a giant tattoo of a dragon on her back (hence the title), compiles a report and in her own way, for unclear reasons, becomes obsessed with the journalist. She continues to hack into his computer after her job is complete reading his files and emails. It is in this way that she finds her own way into the Vanger mystery. Naturally the two come together for a joint investigation into Harriet Vanger’s disappearance.
The movie runs at 2:40, but the narrative is so tightly constructed that there is very little lag time. It is so well done that I didn’t even think to look at my watch until about 2:10 in (and that was only because I had to use the restroom in the most urgent possible way). It is masterful the way Oplev guides viewers through the story and makes all the twists and turns comprehendible. This is a challenge since so many of the suspects are dead or out of town and we only ever see as pictures on a wall. But somehow Oplev gives us enough about these absent characters for us to remember who they are (or were), what their relationship to the missing girl was, and what kinds of people they were. Slowly we get a very ugly picture of what this family is really like: everything from Nazi collaborators to abusive mothers.
Some of the leads Blomkvist picks up on and is able to follow after 40 years are a little silly. Would it really be possible to track down someone in a photo from 1966 without any information about her? Hardly, but I didn’t care. I chuckled briefly and went on with the picture, hoping it didn’t get any sillier… and it didn’t.
Reviews have been largely positive, but some have criticized it for excessive violence. There are maybe two scenes of disturbing violence but nothing that made me squirm, nothing like Hostel, Saw, or some of these other torture porn movies of recent years. If we count all violence equally this movie is much less violent than Avatar was which I didn’t hear any squawking about. But the difference is this movie is grounded much more firmly in reality. I mean would these critics be howling if it hadn’t been well-written and acted (unlike those in Avatar)? No one really cared about the characters in James Cameron’s cartoon, so killing them was easy with a minimum of muss. Cartoon violence produces caricatures of emotions. Not so here. I count that as a success, not a failure.
The performances are very good across the board. I especially like the pained performance of Sven-Bertil Taube as the long suffering uncle searching for his missing niece. The chilling opening shots are on him opening a package, another taunt, he believes, from his niece’s killer. It’s a moving moment (even though we still are not sure what is going on. Michael Nyqvist turns in a solid lead performance despite a thinly written character. I was a bit turned off by Rapace’s Lisbeth for much of the movie because of her moody and emotionally distant character. She has been receiving a lot of praise for her performance and through the first half of the movie I was uncertain as to why. It isn’t terribly endearing for me to see a character ignore questions or avoid handshakes simply because they’re tortured souls. And it didn’t seem particularly challenging to have to play a woman whose emotions are essentially shut off. I was afraid she was going to remain an emotional void throughout the picture, but as the movie progresses she does something even more impressive. She begins to let down her guard, not in any demonstrative way, but quite subtly. It is often just a gesture or a look in her eyes, but we can see the trace of some sort of feeling under all the posing. The walls remain there, but we can see that Blomqvist is getting to her; she is beginning to trust him. She begins to let him into a part of herself that she kept closed off to anyone, including her mother. She struggles with two impulses: to safely hide behind her emotional barriers or to open up and connect with another human being. By the end we see in Rapace’s restrained performance that she is, against all her instincts, actually falling in love. And after everything we have seen in the movie’s world – the institutional corruption, racism, misogyny, and myriad forms of general cruelty – it is a wonder that anyone would be able to love at all. Good stuff.