The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The first installment in the “Millennium Trilogy” of movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s publishing juggernaut, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a satisfying mash-up that combines the film equivalent of page-turning crime procedural with a cyberpunk-inspired heroine who spends as much time hacking computers as she does gunning her motorcycle down icy Swedish highways. Title character Lisbeth Salander, played with fierce commitment by the compelling Noomi Rapace, is about as far away from Jane Marple as imaginable, but Salander’s perceptiveness, intelligence, and tenacity link her not only to Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, but a line of problem-solvers including Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling.

While “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t as brilliant as “The Silence of the Lambs,” the serial killer challenges faced by the heroine are equally diabolical, and Salander makes the transition from page to screen with practically all of her hallmarks intact. Salander is a terrific character. She masks her wounds and vulnerabilities under the confrontational accoutrements of her tough personal style, which include a severe haircut, chunky leather boots, facial piercings, and some elaborately inked body art. Both Larsson and director Niels Arden Oplev wring a few wry laughs from the ways in which Salander’s investigative skill regularly forces others to reevaluate their initial misperceptions of her.

In an aerodynamically streamlined translation that slices subplots, dumps characters, and simplifies convolutions, screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg retain the potency of the relationship that develops between Salander and her partner Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the disgraced investigative journalist hired by a wealthy industrialist to unravel a decades-old cold case. Relying on the tried and true formulae of genealogically linked suspects and a variation of the locked room puzzle, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” pays homage to years of crime fiction in ways that fulfill the expectations of genre fans.

The original title of the novel and film translates to “Men Who Hate Women,” and Larsson’s novel frequently cites statistics that address sexual violence committed against women in Sweden. One of the shrewdest choices made by Larsson in the construction of his vivid world divides our attention between the step-by-step journey toward the solution of the Harriet Vanger case and the legal dilemmas faced by Salander, which trigger several of the most shocking sequences in the film. Salander unmistakably retains key characteristics of heterosexual male fantasy object, but her motivations and actions add a complexity to the typically black and white simplicity of the binary poles that separate victim from victimizer.

The challenge of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is how to grapple with the coexistence of Lisbeth Salander’s brand of feminism and the candid depictions of brutal rape, sexual deviance, and physical torture that hover near the edge of sordidness. Director Oplev handles the most salacious content without blinking, but many viewers will be mulling over the sexual violence long after the central mystery that drives the plot is forgotten. To be fair, Larsson interlocks both past and present story threads with the undercurrent of power-based defilement, but the extent of the narrative’s identification with women will be hotly debated by readers and viewers for some time.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/24/10.

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