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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Reviewed by Derek Johnson, © 2010

Format: Movie
By:   Niels Arden Oplev (director)
Genre:   Horror/Mystery/Thriller
Review Date:   April 07, 2010
Audience Rating:   Unrated
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

I picked up Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a couple of years ago on a whim, intrigued by the title and knowing nothing about the subject matter or its author, and I almost put it back on the shelf when the cashier at Barnes and Noble stumbled over her effulgent praise of it.

  I’d been taken like that before, when Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code flew from store shelves like Hitchcock’s birds lighting from a jungle gym and booksellers who should have known better tried to serve me its sub-literate Kool-Aid.

  Fortunately, Larsson's book managed to be an absorbing though overlong thriller, well-written and suspenseful, though perhaps too similar to works I had read before.  If nothing else, I felt the praise it received from audiences in the United States, though a tad too generous, was earned.

Now the film adaptation directed by Niels Arden Oplev is finding its way into U.S. theaters, and promises to be as much of a hit here as it is in Europe.  Despite the movie’s faults, that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, it promises to please both fans of the novel and those who have never cracked the book’s spine. 

After losing a libel case against Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström (Stefan Sauk) and facing three months in prison, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) receives a request by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), former CEO of the Vanger Company, to solve the disappearance of Vanger’s sixteen-year-old great-niece Harriet. Harriet disappeared from the island where the family lives, and Vanger believes that she was murdered by a member of his family. The Vanger clan gives new meaning to the definition dysfunctional: two of its members were members of the Nazi party during the 1940s, and all appear to have their individual agendas.

During the course of his investigation he receives help from Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a tattooed, cynical and ruthless computer hacker initially hired by Vanger to ensure that Blomkvist was suitable for the investigation. (Her specialty is in investigation of persons.) As they investigate, Blomkvist and Lisbeth link Harriet’s disappearance to a series of grisly murders that predate Harriet’s disappearance, and to even darker aspects of the Vanger family.

If in summary The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sounds like a routine mélange of other thrillers (in this case Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Tami Hoag’s Night Sins and Minette Walters’s The Ice House), in the details it provides a great deal of suspense as well as insight both on how cruelly men can treat women (not surprising when one learns that the movie’s title Män som hatar kvinnor translates into English as Men Who Hate Women). Indeed, screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg foreground the misogyny of the male characters without letting it overpower the entire picture.

Arcel and Heisterberg also manage to weave the theme of the responsibility of the criminal and society for crimes committed into the movie, but its inclusion is not seamless and often feels redundant. Fortunately the script does not spend too much time dwelling on these almost token philosophical concerns, concentrating instead on the investigation itself, honing the novel’s myriad subplots into a structure that addresses but does not overpower the primary narrative.

They are helped by Oplev’s direction. Filmed in a flat, realist manner reminiscent both of the television series Wire in the Blood and the exquisite vampire movie Let the Right One In, Oplev focuses on his actors and locations instead of the sensational elements that foreground most thrillers. Generally this serves the movie well, especially in its more violent sequences, which draw power from their very drabness.

The pace falters after the first hour, but this does not diminish the viewer’s interest, and it regains its footing as the events near their climax.

The cast, too, keeps the material from sliding into cheesy melodrama and cheap exploitation. Michael Nyqvist and Sven-Bertil Taube bring life to Blomkvist and Vanger, respectively, but the real star of the movie is Noomi Rapace as the title character. She portrays Lisbeth as tough but vulnerable, capable by turns of strong fits of rage as well as tenderness. (In her black leather and with her jet black hair, she also appears to be something of a hybrid of Case and Molly Millions in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.)

In lesser hands Lisbeth’s single-mindedness and incorruptibility would seem the worst parody of damaged woman with a heart of gold (which, alas, one finds all too often in this particular genre), but Rapace sells it by making even her virtues not quite as clear cut as they were in the novel.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first part of a trilogy, already filmed and, one presumes, also heading for the United States. Its success in Europe has also garnered the attention of Hollywood; already one hears rumors of a remake starring George Clooney and directed by David Fincher. Let’s hope these don’t pan out, because, minor flaws aside, the original is worth seeing.

Derek Johnson’s critical works have appeared in SF Site, SF Signal and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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