The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Swedish thriller ‘Dragon Tattoo’ delivers the goods
It’s easy to forget how dissatisfying so much Hollywood trash is until you see a good imported version. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ’’ arrives from Sweden, having conquered Europe with a shameless instinct for the mass appeal of murder-mystery violence. If a film is going to subject us to characters who are beaten up and pinioned, it should do so not simply with gusto but with a narrative end purpose. In this case, the story comes from the first book in the late Stieg Larsson’s hugely popular “Millennium’’ trilogy, and it has everything one could want in a smutty page-turner: serial killers, Nazis, aristocrats, corrupt politicians, assault, a stony cyber-detective goth girl.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the star journalist of Millennium magazine, is six months away from serving a prison sentence for libeling a politician (he was set up!) when he’s invited from Stockholm out to sleepy, fictional Hedestad to help crack a cold case. Forty years ago a 16-year-old named Harriet Vanger disappeared. Not only is her bereft uncle Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube) convinced she was murdered, he knows someone in his large, well-heeled family did it. Who better to go digging through the family’s seedy past than a disgraced investigative journalist?
That side of the movie simmers, while on an adjacent burner boils the unhappy doings of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the pierced, epically inked stone punk hired by Henrik’s lawyer to spy on Mikael and vouch for his credibility. Lisbeth looks like she’s on leave from a Nine Inch Nails cover band. She speed walks through Stockholm in her skinny jeans, platform boots, and hoodie, vaguely androgynous, making as little contact as she can with the world.
The paths she crosses are rough and capriciously cruel. Having survived a terrible adolescence and time in a mental hospital, Lisbeth faces down several gruesome encounters at the hands of men, once headed from the subway, on another occasion seated in a study. She fights back but is often either outnumbered or overpowered. But she’s a great character. Her lesbianism, biological as it is, also makes psychological sense. Women don’t hurt her.
We recognize a ferocity in her that the men here are too arrogant or psychotic to appreciate. Few of them see the enormous dragon tattooed on her back, but if they could, they would know that dragon should be wearing a tattoo of her. The beauty of Rapace’s performance is its marriage of watchfulness to action. Lisbeth’s steely, snarling demeanor shields a sense of moral decency. She seems heartened to have stalked the last upstanding man in Sweden.
And how nice to see a thriller in which a man is subject to a woman’s gaze. Even the photo of the missing Harriet that Mikael hangs on his wall seems to stare right back at him. The movie’s politics aren’t lost on the filmmakers. Niels Arden Oplev, a Dane, directed Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s adaptation, and their movie draws you with deceptive transparency, shamelessly embracing both lightness and the ridiculous while sustaining a high level of psychological credibility.
The “Dragon Tattoo’’ story is good enough for the prevailing excitement to spread to the usually dull shot of laptops loading files and programs shuffling through photo galleries. We know Mikael and Lisbeth are destined to collaborate. They both fight crime with Macs. But the movie loses something when these two do meet. Oplev does such an involving job of moving back and forth between Hedestad and Stockholm that a kind of romantic tension develops. How long until Mikael and Lisbeth become a team?
The union brings out surprising new sides of her; and yet, while retaining its juicy unseemliness and capacity to generate suspense, the film also takes a turn for the mawkish and ordinary. The nutjobs her investigation with Mikael exposes are all too familiar. Still, the movies rarely gives us a woman as fascinatingly complex as Lisbeth Salander, and the happiest news about the two sequels is that she’ll be back.