You don’t see much of the famous dragon tattoo in the movie but you do see a lot of the girl, Lisbeth Salander, in a remarkable performance from Swedish actress Noomi Rapace–that spirals between her troubled present to her even more troubled past, unrolling her psyche like the layers of an onion.
Salander, as she’s usually called, is a 24-year-old Goth hacker geek with a photographic memory, socially inept even in bed, hostile and brittle and so psychologically wounded she’s scary. But she’s brilliant and fiercely intense and looks awesome on her motorcycle. Stiff black hair, about a dozen rings in her nose, ear, etc and yes, that tattoo on her back, which we don’t really learn about. She’s the most complex female character since Smilla, the troubled crime solver from Greenland in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg’s famous 1995 first novel and the 1997 film. Seems there must be something in vistas of snowy mountains that make their women characters so compelling. Noomi Rapace is an unforgettable screen presence, and the real star of the movie, but she’s introduced second.
First we meet Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist for edging Millennium magazine, who has just lost a libel case against a nefarious industrialist and has six months of freedom until his jail sentence starts. He’s offered a highly paid job in the interim–to find out what happened 40 years ago to Harriet, the 16-year old beloved nice of elderly billionaire Henrik Vanger. The case is so old and the clues so few that it seems almost hopeless.
But Salander was hired by Vanger’s assistant to do a security check on Blomkvist and she is impressed with the journalist’s essential goodness, a rare quality in the men in her world. She makes a rash decision–she hacks into his computer and gives him an essential clue that eventually leads both of them from the search for the missing girl to a string of horrendous murders that takes place over decades.
The mystery unravels slowly, but it maintains interest because the clues–and the awful truth that is gradually revealed–is so fascinating. And we can’t take our eyes off Lisbeth Salander as her laser brain searches for answers.
The film is based on the bestselling novel, the first in the trilogy by Stieg Larsson that was not published until after his death. The original title of the book and the film is Men Who Hate Women. This is important to know because the criminals in this film are indeed men who hate women. You need to be prepared for this fact and the graphic images it calls up.
The other thing to know is that there are two extremely violent rapes in the film. Both are needed, unfortunately, to reveal Salander’s character and how she deals with the harsh realities that she has had to face. In the first instance, she is violently raped by the man who is her assigned guardian, so you can close your eyes if you want to in the scene which is the second time she sees this man. It’s what I did. The second instance is when Salander gets her revenge on the man and tortures and rapes him while she forces him to watch the video she made of what he had done to her. While revenge in theory is good in films, this time it makes you nauseated. You’ve been warned.
But after the first hour of the film and all its Scandinavian angst, the movie takes off and doesn’t stop until the surprise ending. It’s not necessary to have read the book, by the way, to enjoy the movie. It’s amazingly understandable for a complex tale.
Directed by Niels Arden Opley, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has won the Swedish Oscar and gained cult status in the year since its release. There is an American version of the film being planned–I shudder to think how the searing look at Swedish society of the original is going to be watered down in it. There are plans to make films of the remaining two books in the trilogy so you should definitely see this first one on the big screen if you’re interested in following Stieg Larsson’s journey from page to film.