Stieg Larsson’s internationally bestselling Millennium Trilogy is getting the cinematic treatment both in his native Sweden and in Hollywood. The American version won’t hit theaters until 2012, but the Swedish version has already been winning awards throughout Europe since its early-2009 release. The novel has been a surprise posthumous hit for Larsson, garnering legions of devoted fans who, after seeing the film, will surely populate the blogosphere with comments like “This movie isn’t as developed as the book” and “I can’t believe they cut this/that.” This review, however, will not entertain such dissections, as like a statue artist who has to first sketch out its details, the film and book are separate mediums and can be critiqued as such.
That said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the film) is not a masterpiece. It feels too long and slightly underdeveloped, afflictions that leave the film feeling unsteady. It’s constantly trying to balance character development and visual intensity. Nonetheless, it does contain thrills and suspense — it even manages to stay away from becoming an overblown detective story like Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the truly impressive thing about Larsson’s story is that pure entertainment clearly isn’t the ultimate goal here. Larsson instead twists the detective narrative into a tale extolling the problematic nature of the way society deals with sexual abuse towards women; the detective story is essentially a guise.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) is a journalist waiting to do jail time for slandering an industrial tycoon. While he waits, he is asked to investigate the disappearance of a rival tycoon’s niece. Lisbeth Salander, brilliantly portrayed by Noomi Rapace, is hired by a security company to investigate Blomkvist for a client. When the client cancels the investigation, she begins aiding Blomkvist on his hunt for the murderer, leading into a depraved world of sexual abuse that reveals why Larsson had originally, and rather bluntly, titled the series Men Who Hate Women.
Salander is cold, introverted, and distant, a distinctive noir character that lands in the pantheon of Philip Marlowe as one of the best detectives ever committed to either paper or celluloid. Like the great male leads in Hollywood noirs, Salander is standoffish, playing everything close to the chest. But what distinguishes Salander, beyond her modernity and technological know-how, is the generally unexplored psychology of a character who doesn’t trust anyone, who digs through the garbage late at night, who experiences trauma and keeps it internalized. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t fear the intimacy necessary to give full-fleshed life to this stock character reimagined; the film embraces that intimacy while successfully keeping the audience at arm’s length to maintain the character traits and overall mystery.
At the core of this character development is the thematic meat of the film: sexual violence. (Be warned, there are minor spoilers ahead.) With director Niels Arden Oplev, screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg create a character that personifies a society that refuses to end sexual violence where it is presented. A vicious cycle is presented, from the unnamed abuses of her father to her mother’s reluctance to stop the abuse, from the abuse she incurs as an adult (which we are shown) to the shocking sexual violence at the center of the mystery. This cycle reveals how sexual violence begets sexual violence, and while the story is extreme and often shockingly aggressive, the ideas at the core are not that outlandish and are, in fact, a reality for too many people. The combination of shock and plausibility gives the film gravitas.
Despite the sometimes-overwrought genre tropes (characters jumping into frames from darkness, swelling music to cue emotional triggers), there is something powerful, something different taking place in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It utilizes the conventions, frequently to the detriment of entire scenes, to pacify the audience for its shock conventions. As a mystery film, it is occasionally dull and occasionally entertaining. As a piece of probing cinema meditating on sexual violence, it is unquestionably engaging like few other films on the topic.