The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
by George Sax
Hacking Through The Underbrush of Deceit: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
For about 50 years, Swedish crime-fiction writers have been setting their work in a homeland that’s socially and psychologically, if not economically, bleak and alienating. In the downbeat 1960s and 1970s policiers of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahoo, up through the brooding and sometimes explosively violent Wallender series by Henning Mankell, to the just-released film adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sweden, the social democratic paragon, has often seemed a society facing dislocating social pathologies and vaguely defined alienation. (Come to think of it, this sounds something like the US, without, of course, Sweden’s superior health care, child care and elder care, public infrastructure, low poverty rate, cleaner air, and, oft-times, world-class professional tennis players. Say, what is eating those Swedes?)
In Niels Arden Oplev’s driving but involved new film version of Larsson’s book, the first in a trilogy, the characters certainly have reason for their unhappiness. The title’s referent girl is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) a thin, 24-year-old bisexual, tight-lipped and tightly wound. Looking rather like a forlorn Goth-girl waif, she is in fact an exceptionally accomplished computer hacker whose skills are employed by an investigation firm. She’s also socially phobic damaged goods, although the background to her condition is only gradually revealed.
It’s through a job that Lisbeth becomes interested in the case of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist), a crusading leftist journalist. The movie opens with a quick run-through of his plight. He’s been convicted of criminal libel after he published articles about the alleged criminal enterprises of a financial magnate, and belatedly discovered that the evidence he’d been fed was forged. Awaiting the start of his three-month sentence, he agrees to help a wealthy retired industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Sven Bertel Traub), discover what became of his sixteen-year-old niece. She disappeared 40 years ago and is presumed by Vanger to have been murdered. As it happens, the 40-something Blomkvist has a personal connection to the missing woman, one he long ago forgot. (Why Vanger has waited so long for one final effort to pierce this mystery is a question that isn’t addressed, though it seems a reasonable one.)
The extended Vanger clan soon proves to have a richly screwy and corrupt provenance, including the affinity of several of them for fascism. When Blomkvist studies photos of the girl taken at a parade on the day she went missing, and discerns a subtly meaningful pattern, we’re somewhere that resembles the studio of the fashion photographs in Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential mystery Blow-Up.
But this movie has less ontological puzzles on its mind. Some critical response has called it a variant of the old closed-room mystery sub-genre because the Vangers live on an island whose only bridge was closed to traffic the day of the disappearance, but Girl is really indirectly descended from the hard-boiled, socially concerned California detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDoland, revved up according to the brute, pulsating, sexually explicit aesthetic standards of our day.
Forming an oddball team, the reporter and the Goth girl develop evidence of a pattern of horrible crimes that preceded the niece’s abrupt departure, and which may be related to it. Lisbeth’s own backstory is related to the stark anti-misogyny theme. (The Swedish title of Larsson’s book is Men Who Hate Women.)
Oplev keeps things propulsive, but despite its two-and-one-half-hour length the movie feels compressed at times. When Blomkvist says, “I haven’t driven since my divorce,” some sort of clarification seems called for, but none is forthcoming.
Technically the movie is expertly put together, its photography and lighting carefully used to enhance mood and plot. Oplev makes it consistently taut and involving, but after it’s over, it doesn’t leave behind the teasing, ambiguous resonance of another film mystery that recently opened locally, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Girl’s effects are bigger, blown-up, pulpier. It does provoke enough interest to make us wonder about a possible future collaboration between its two haunted, superficially incompatible sleuths.
Watch the trailer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
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Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v9n15 (The Green Issue: Week of April 15, 2010) > Film Reviews > The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
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