Based on the first part of the Millennium Trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, a hugely successful European crime series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has made some compromises for its cinematic debut. Fortunately the compromises are few, and mostly superficial.
The first and most regularly commented on of these compromises is the title: In the Swedish original, it is the direct, if, rather pertinent, “Men Who Hate Women.” There are plenty of men who hate women in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and to some extent the women get their own back, but this is far more complicated than your standard exploitation movie. The film has many faults, but oversimplification is not one of them.
Sexual politics is at the heart of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a title that titillates in a way that is just a trifle unsavory after you have seen the film. Sure, this is about a girl, or woman, who likes to be on top and who has a tattoo of a dragon down her back, but this is a very minor part of the appeal of this well-crafted serial killer flick. What there is, is a good measure of hate, mixed with a subtle blend of something that might be called love — depending on one’s taste — as well as fear and lust and curiosity, and pride and arrogance, and then more fear topped off with another dash of hate.
Hate is not just the force that drives the villains in this movie, it is also what drives the hero — if Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the bondage-goth-hacker who lives at the very heart of this movie, can be described as a hero. Watching coldly while the bad guy gradually ignites — no quick explosion to ease the pain — and burns to death in his overturned car is not what good guys are supposed to do. For that matter, neither is taking retribution by sodomizing bad guys with an over-sized dildo.
You get the idea. The dramatic lead, though supposedly subordinate to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced journalist hired by an aging industrialist to solve the case of a little girl who went missing 40 years ago, is not altogether a nice sort of sidekick. She has serious issues with men. Flashbacks of her past history graphically indicate that she is not a girl who should be crossed. The brilliance of Dragon Tattoo is that this vengefulness is linked not to super powers, but to a profound vulnerability.
Clearly author Larsson enjoyed playing games with the established norms of sexual politics, and this is certainly part of the appeal of this European release (it is unlikely that an upcoming Hollywood remake will push these issues as far).
The relationship between hero Blomkvist and his sidekick Lisbeth is an interesting one, and long before the credits roll it already has you longing for a sequel. This is always a positive sign of strong characters well-realized, for in the end, the solution to the mystery is subordinate to the development of the characters, an idea that most Hollywood filmmakers have been very slow to grasp.
While character development takes place in the background, director Niels Arden Oplev spins a highly complex web over a wide range of suspects, most of them very unattractive. There are issues with Nazi sympathies, anti-Semitism, misogynism, torture, humiliation and indifference to the social underclass. As with many of the great works of detective fiction, such as the books of Raymond Chandler, the social background that creates the crimes is as important as the crime itself. Despite its considerable length — more than two-and-a-half hours — Dragon Tattoo rarely sags, and at times one wishes for a bit more detail to put the complicated jigsaw into context (the original book is well over 600 pages, and the film never gives up on its efforts to give us as much of the book as possible).
There are no great action sequences, a marker of the staid European film. Blomkvist has smarts, but no abs to speak of, and Salander, with her pugnacious sexuality, is not your usual female lead. She wears a spiked dog collar to an interview with a parole officer and has multiple piercings.
With its strong theme of sexual violence, Dragon Tattoo may offend some, but it is part of a larger fascination with the deeper extremes of the psychological spectrum that have already been so successfully exploited in the novels of crime writers such as Val McDermid and Patricia Cornwell. The focus on the story allows Dragon Tattoo to drift very close to being a big-screen treatment of made-for-TV content — perilously close in fact — and it is mostly up to Rapace’s stylized yet intimate presentation of her character to give this film its cinematic force. She comes through more than adequately.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (MAN SOM HATAR KVINNOR)
NIELS ARDEN OPLEV
MICHAEL NYQVIST (MIKAEL BLOMKVIST), NOOMI RAPACE (LISBETH SALANDER), LENA ENDRE (ERIKA BERGER),
PETER HABER (MARTIN VANGER)
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