Genre pictures can be a hit or miss way to spend your time, in particular serial killer films, which outnumber actual serial killers by several powers of magnitude. Those few worth the time bring something essential to the table, be it impeccable fidelity to details (Citizen X), superb pacing and narrative (Seven), or an iconic performance (Silence of the Lambs). The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is as implausible as most any crime fiction film with an unlikely puzzle to solve, but it more than makes up for this with spot-on acting and a disturbing preoccupation with violence towards women. Based on the first installment of the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson, the novel title was Men Who Hate Women, leaving little of the authorís intents to the imagination. The pacing is swift, the details thick, and you are swept along into a darkly moody piece that is unafraid of repulsive psychology.
Michael Nyqvist anchors the film as the straight protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, clearly the crusader after the opening scenes establish him as a righteous journalist who was set up for taking on a wealthy capitalist. The true star, however, is the titular girl, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, who delivers a perfomance of molten steel. If she does not become an actress of international renown as well as becoming a sex symbol of our admittedly young decade, then I will have lost what little hope I have left for cinema. Lisbeth is a truly captivating creation, in a woman who is well written, fiercely independent, and utterly fearless. She can take punishment, but is more than capable of inflicting pain with no remorse. Most interesting is her attitude towards sex, which is causal and without a hint of shame or attachment; this is unique in film (at least from an American perspective) since all women must be gunning for a husband, addicted to the idea of children, or has some vestige of guilt over being a total slut. Lisbeth is not concerned about the impression she gives – she is fucking brilliant and you can take or leave her.† She simply enjoys sex and that is about it, which is all too rare on screen for some odd reason. This is closely related to the theme of misogyny, though her character stands alone even without this element.
Blomkvist is to serve time in prison for libel, and so with his spare time before going behind bars, he is hired to find the killer of Harriet Vanger – a woman who disappeared forty years ago. He struggles to sift through the mountains of information amassed about the case and review film from photos taken decades ago. As he struggles, Lisbeth injects her formidable skills into the proceedings, as she is an extraordinary researcher. Technology takes a central role in the story, but The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo will age well despite this. The tools of their trade will occupy landfills within a year, but another theme to Tattoo is that technology transmits information around rather easily, but you still need the raw data to process. And this data is always obtained the old-fashioned way – hours of digging. And so the pair begin their descent into history, of the countryside of Sweden, the families with secrets that live there, and a tangled web of religion and violence that closely intertwine.
The film takes its time when delving into a back story that involves Nazis and rituals, but it paces itself most carefully in establishing the characters. We learn about Mikaelís motivations in going after an industrial titan and the personal connections in his life, though this has nothing to do with the investigation that fills the movie proper. Lisbeth has a troubled past, primarily with men who have a parasitic streak. There is an extended series of scenes with her new legal guardian who clearly relishes the power he has over young women who require his consent. These are raw and vicious almost to a fault, but are essential to understanding Lisbeth, and tie in neatly with the overall themes. She may not be much of an artiste when it comes to a tattoo gun, but her resolve to have her way and live her life without depending upon the other gender is made all too clear. Lest I give the wrong impression, this is not a feminist screed or any such nonsense. Most of the women and men in the film are equally useless. This includes the elderly patriarch who was so obsessed with the memory of Harriet Vanger that he was unable to do anything about her disappearance until the present day. The heroes of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo have in common that they need nobody. Some friends are good company, other acquaintances who can be useful, but no attachments that could compromise oneís safety or sanity.
The film is atmospheric, and directed with a supreme eye for detail by Neils Arden Oplev. The familiar elements of breathless discoveries, unlikely puzzles, and ambushes from the shadows never become a crutch. Silence of the Lambs also dealt with violence and generalized injustice towards women, but did not expand upon this theme; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo also considers the effect that rape and brutality have upon the survivors, and avoids trite explanations. Tattoo keeps an eye on far more curious game than a simple mystery. After all, a standard riddle has an answer that is easily forgotten once solved. The fractured tale never gives the impression of being finished; the sordid history of the Vanger family only seems typical for a dense rural area with more than its share of secrets that would prefer to remain hidden. There is no shortage of potential victims, and the next generation of rapists and killers are in development and look just like the rest of us. Nothing will redeem us, it would seem; the Nazis are extinct, but the human nature that made their existence possible remains intact. Redemption could be in the hands of people like Lisbeth, who represents the power of information, among other things. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was outstanding, and cannot be highly recommended enough. Do yourself a favor and skip the American remake slated for 2012, starring Shia LeBeouf as the Girl.