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Saturday, February 28, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist
Country: Sweden

Six years after the fact (and three after the American remake), the first screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should not feel as revolutionary as it still does. Yet it’s still a gut punch to watch a film so unflinching in its treatment of sexual violence, so determined to see that violence from a female point of view, and so eager to not merely give its female protagonist agency, but allow her to seize it for herself. Although the narrative’s mechanics make it somewhat unlikely for success as a film (for one thing, the two leads don’t even meet until the halfway point and up until then are operating in their own separate stories), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nevertheless a spellbinding piece of work thanks in no small part to the fact that the girl in question happens to be one of the most compelling and fascinating female characters ever committed to film.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo splits its focus between two characters: journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). As the film opens Blomkvist has been convicted of libel and is killing time before he begins serving a term in prison when he’s approached by Henrik Vanger (Seven-Bertil Taube) with a proposition: Vanger wants him to use his investigative abilities to solve the 40 year old mystery of his niece’s disappearance and prove once and for all which of the members of Vanger’s family was responsible for it. Though they have never met, Lisbeth has intimate knowledge of every aspect of Blomkvist’s life, having been hired by Vanger’s head of security to run a secret and very invasive background check on him. Blomkvist was nothing more than another job, and yet Lisbeth finds herself drawn to him enough that she continues to keep tabs on him after the job is done, and she quietly observes his progress in his investigation. Finally, and perhaps driven by the desire to escape from her own violently complicated life, she tacitly reveals herself to him by sending him a crucial piece of information and is then officially brought into the investigation, which unfolds to reveal that they are not looking for the killer of one young woman, but the killer of many women over several decades. As they get closer to the truth, they find themselves being hunted, and soon they aren’t just going through evidence but dodging bullets as well.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unrelentingly brutal film, one marked by violence which comes in several forms but which is never exploitative. As directed by Niels Arden Opley, there’s no visual aesthetic that foregrounds the forbidden pleasure of looking, of passively participating in the violence; instead the violence, and in particular the sexual violence, is grim and harrowing, the camera refusing to look away from it so that it becomes less voyeur than witness. The Swedish title of the film is “Men Who Hate Women” and there’s a strong current of misogyny that runs through the story, which the film uses to examine and criticise the ways that society nurtures hatred of women at an institutional level and ensures that vulnerable people remain at the mercy of those with the ability and the inclination to abuse their power without fear of recourse. It foregrounds misogyny, but the film itself is ferociously feminist and frames both violence perpetuated against women, and the mindset that inspires it, as unequivocally vile and worthy of disdain. The film is pitiless in this respect and makes no room for excuses, as in a scene towards the end when Lisbeth shuts down Mikael’s attempts to characterize the killer as also being a victim. As Mikael tries to absolve the killer by arguing that his broken childhood left him with no choice about what sort of man he would grow up to be, Lisbeth cuts rights to the brutal truth: Mikael was a target because he got too close to the truth, but Lisbeth could have been a target no matter what simply by being a woman in the general proximity of a man with such a toxic and destructive view of women. The film sees misogyny as a disease and its sufferers as having no place in society – Mikael sees the killer as broken, Lisbeth sees him as too far gone to be fixed; and because the film can’t help itself but to align with Lisbeth’s point of view, that ends up being the verdict of the narrative, too.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a film without flaws – its narrative construction is somewhat counterintuitive to a thriller, and though it can be enjoyed as a stand alone film, it is clearly the first entry in a series and working to set up things that will only payoff in later films – but it is nevertheless a wholly engrossing piece of work. A big part of its success is due to Lisbeth, who is such an interesting and fully realized character and who is so perfectly played by Rapace. There is an inherent flatness to Lisbeth in terms of how she relates to and experiences the people and the world around her, a detachment that informs her ability to play so thoroughly by her own rules, but there is also a simmering intensity that can, and sometimes does, explode. The performance hits all the right notes and the missing beats in Lisbeth’s interactions with others makes for some humorously awkward moments between her and Mikael which in turn offer a brief respite from the story’s overall darkness. Rapace’s performance is amazing and the film itself is more than equal to it, its impact dulled neither by time nor by the potential redundancy of a remake.

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