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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

* * * *

Director: Niels Arden Opley
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist

4 stars hardly seems adequate to sum up how I feel about this movie. This adaptation of the first part of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is an absolutely spellbinding film and its protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is one of the most compelling and fascinating characters to come along in quite a while. The film is already set for a totally unnecessary Stateside remake, which I think will prove problematic not only in terms of casting but also content, as the forthright, unflinching way that the film deals with violence is one of its most startling features.

There's a lot of plot to this story, but I'll sum it up as best I can and without giving much away. It opens with a libel verdict against Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) for a story he published in his magazine Millennium. In a few months he will begin serving his prison term and in the interim he's approached by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who wants to hire him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Henrik believes that Harriet was murdered by a member of the family so that they could secure a greater part of the Vanger fortune and on the surface it appears that his suspicions are on point. Despite the fact that they all hate each other, the family lives together on an island accessible only by a bridge to the mainland. The day of Harriet's disappearance there was an accident on the bridge that would have made it impossible for Harriet to come into contact with anyone outside the family. The case has been cold for 40 years and Mikael settles in to wade through boxes and boxes of evidence that Henrik has collected over the years, determined but nevertheless doubtful about his possibilities of success.

Back in Stockholm a computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) closely monitors Blomkvist's progress and cracks the code that has Blomkvist and the police baffled. She sends her findings to Blomkvist and joins him on the island where they uncover more clues and discover that they aren't just investigating the disappearance of one girl, but a series of murders that have taken place in the towns surrounding the island. The closer they get to the truth, the bigger the targets on their backs become and soon they aren't just going through evidence anymore, but dodging bullets as well.

Directed by Niels Arden Opley The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is sometimes unrelentingly brutal in terms of its violence and definitely not for the faint of heart. That being said, the violence (particularly the sexual violence, of which there is much) is not exploitative. It isn't "torture porn" constructed around a visual aesthetic that foregrounds the forbidden pleasure of looking; it's grim and harrowing and the camera refuses to look away from it, becoming less voyeur than witness. The Swedish title of the film is actually Men Who Hate Women and there's a strong current of misogyny that runs through the story, by which I mean that the film acknowledges and is critical of misogyny, not that it is itself misogynist. On the contrary the film is actually ferociously feminist and it frames both the violence and the mindset that inspires it as unequivocally vile. There is a moment between Lisbeth and Mikael towards the end in which she advises him against reasoning that the killer is also a victim, tacitly acknowledging a hard reality: Mikael is a target because he's too close to the truth; Lisbeth is a target because she's too close to the truth, but could also become a target simply by being a woman in the general proximity of the killer. The film sees misogyny as a disease and its sufferers as having no place in society.

The film isn't perfect in terms of how it unravels its mystery, giving away maybe a little too much a little too soon, but it is still wholly engrossing. A big part of that is due to Lisbeth and the way that she's played by Rapace. There is a flatness to the way that she experiences the people and world around her which suggests Asperger's (the film never directly addresses this but it's my understanding that the books do), but there is also a simmering intensity that can, and occassionally does, explode. The performance always hits just the right notes and the missing beats in the way that Lisbeth interacts with others makes for some hilariously awkward moments between her and Mikael, offering a brief respite from the story's overall darkness. It's a great performance and the film is more than equal to it. The only downside is that now I have to wait for the second and third parts.


Shubhajit said...

Terrific review!!!

I too loved the film. The performances, the pacing, the moody cinematography, the brooding atmosphere, the darkness quotient, the compelling narrative - everything was spot on.

I'm completely with you regarding the planned American remake of the movie. Firstly its a dumb job to replicate the artistic and/or commercial success of a movie. And moreover, the American producers, I'm quite certain, will heavily tone down on the violence as well as the underlying misogyny that forms a strong theme for the plot.

Danny King said...

So glad you enjoyed the film this much; I did as well!

Those second and third installments cannot get here fast enough!

Norma Desmond said...

@Shubhajit: The thing about the violence in this movie is that part of the reason it's so startling is because we're kind of trained by mainstream North Amercian films to expect a cut away at a certain point. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't do that, which makes for uncomfortable viewing but ultimately strengthens the overall point of the story. I have little doubt that the remake will be heavily watered down and I can't even imagine who they're going to get to play Lisbeth.

@Danny King: From what I understand, all three parts were released in Sweden within a couple of months of each other - is it too much to hope the same happens on this side of the Atlantic?

Brent said...

I've read the books and seen all three films. I think this was the best of the three, both book and film.
Salander is absolutely one of the most outstanding and original characters to hit the screen in many years.
But she isn't aspergers. She had been thrown into a mental hospital as a child but she is never in any way mentally ill or unstable. This is one of the key things in the first two books as it appears she's not all there but in the third movie she has a court scene in which her mental condition is exposed and she is free to go.
But she does have a high intellect and a photographic memory.
Absolutely agree with you that it is pointless re-making them into English and I'm finding everyone who has seen the Millennium films agrees. I don't think the sexual violence will compare to the original. Dragon Tattoo is a brutal film in its depiction of rape and violence towrds women.
It is an uncompromising film but great for its approach to the subject matter. The next two books/films moved away from a moral tone and concentrated on Salander and her story, and don't have the brutality of the first movie. They still have a repugnant air, but they are developing Salander as a character.
Good review though and a great blog!!..I'll be back as you see the films I do and it is always interesting to read what others think.