Film Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Directed By Niels Arden Oplev
Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace and Sven-Bertil Taube

Staring down the barrel of an impending prison sentence after being found guilty of libel in a major, clearly crooked court case, left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is approached by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Taube) with an intriguing case. Vanger’s niece vanished 40 years previously from an isolated, enclosed island, while the entire Vanger dynasty – a slimy, back-biting coven of entitled sociopaths and Nazi sympathisers – all have motive and opportunity. As Blomkvist begins his investigation, Lisbeth Salander, a young, heavily-pierced and tattooed hacker/researcher hired to look into the reporter during his libel case, stumbles across his notes on the Vanger disappearance and becomes fascinated. The two unlikely allies join forces, quickly making progress, but unleashing all manner of sinister secrets and decades-old crimes along the way as they close in on the truth behind Harriet Vanger’s disappearance.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo isn’t always a pleasant film to watch. An adaptation of the opening novel in Stieg Larsson’s literary phenomenon trilogy, Larsson’s depiction of Sweden is of a society where the prevalence of hateful misogyny is overwhelming. His intentions aren’t subtle (especially when considering the original title of the film/book – ‘Men Who Hate Women’), and while the prolonged, repulsive scenes of sexual violence and the ensuing cathartic payback certainly have their desired affect in leaving the viewer reeling from gut-churning discomfort and rooting for our pierced protagonist to enact revenge, the feminist and social commentary are dulled somewhat by the film’s heavy-handed tendencies and its inability to craft a complete character aside from Salander. From random men in public, court-appointed guardians to larger players in the plot, male characters are almost exclusively demonised as violent, abusive and misogynistic, while the characterisation of Blomqvist suffers from the breakneck pace and translation from book to screen, leaving him a passive blank slate bordering on a cypher for much of the film, rather than a whole, well-drawn character. We’re told more about him than we’re shown, and for the majority of the plot, he takes a quiet back seat to the more pro-active and three-dimensional Lisbeth.

It’s undoubtedly Noomi Rapace’s film as Lisbeth Salander though, and she embodies the character with alarming conviction. Rapace apparently took up kickboxing and adopted a strict diet for the role, and her resulting physical stature – lean and slightly masculine – only helps convey her character as a victim of long-term abuse who’s transformed herself into a fighter. Emotionally, Rapace is even more impressive, and brings to life a fascinating and memorable character – a contradictory bundle of deep-seated traumas, socially awkward insecurities, seething, fiery anger and strong-willed, resourceful intelligence. Larsson slyly subverts the expected gender dynamic by having Lisbeth be the tough, hyper-intelligent detective rescuer while Blomqvist is usually three steps behind or playing the damsel in distress. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and thanks in no small part to Rapace’s captivating portrayal, Lisbeth Salander will undoubtedly soon find a worthy place in cinema’s hall of iconic heroines.

The core mystery is never less than riveting as Blomqvist and Lisbeth’s investigation offers an infectiously exhilarating mix of intelligently-handled hi-tech Googling and old school sleuthing, with a great nod to Blowup/Blow Out as our intrepid reporter pieces together a makeshift video from a series of 40-year-old still photos. While it has its unfortunate minor missteps (the answer to a secondary mystery is so glaringly clear from the outset that it’s hard not to wonder why Blomqvist never questions the matter when introduced to the case), the plot is largely intelligent, engrossing and refreshingly free from eye-rollingly convoluted twists. And though the climax is quietly satisfying as opposed to astonishing, it opens the door to a handful of utterly chilling moments, from a group of aged, morbid polaroid photos to a cold and disturbing conversation with the unmasked killer. These subtle, restrained moments linger just as unsettlingly as the graphic violence, adding a disturbing resonance to the gripping plot.

It’s not without its flaws – the film’s heavy-handed social commentary and lack of character development are unfortunate – but The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is still a visually stylish, incredibly absorbing and often chilling thriller with more depth and smarts than the average potboiler. With an entirely compelling mystery and a captivating and enigmatic lead, it’s a film sure to leave viewers itching to see the continued adventures of Lisbeth Salander.