The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) / Mystery-Thriller
aka Man som hatar kvinnor

MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content including rape, grisly images, sexual material, nudity and language
Running Time: 152 min.

Cast: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Peter Haber, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson, Ingvar Hirdwall, Marika Lagerkrantz
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg (based on the novel by Stieg Larsson)
Review published August 28, 2010

A bit lengthy run time for a thriller, but absorbing throughout nonetheless, this murder mystery, somewhat loosely based on the dense best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson (which in its native Swedish literally translates to "Men Who Hate Women", the first in his "Millennium" trilogy), is dark, and more than a little sensationalized (involving perverts, murderers, rapists, Nazis, and literal Biblical interpretations) to be believable, but, like most good thrillers, it's riveting in a way that you won't be able to turn away from it, even during some of the film's most brutal moments. 

Michael Nyqvist (Together, Arn: The Knight Templar) plays Mikael Blomkvist, a popular editor and lead reporter for a well revered Swedish political publication (named Millennium) who finds himself publicly discredited in a high profile court case for libel, which he contends was a complete set-up.  He's convicted, and with six months left before he begins to serve his prison sentence, Mikael is hired by a wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger (Taube, The Eagle Has Landed) to solve a 40-year-old unexplained murder surrounding his niece, Harriet, whom he suspects was murdered by a member of the Vanger family.  However, the more Mikael digs into the family secrets, the more dangerous his situation becomes.  Luckily for Mikael, he has a guardian angel of sorts at his side, the troubled  "bad girl trying to make good" named Lisbeth Salander (Rapace), whose skills at hacking computers leads her to join Mikael's cause when she feels he reaches a dead end. 

Solid actors imbue life into their respective roles, with Nyqvist playing an effective middle-aged professional caught in life's noose, trying to find some sort of meaning amidst the meaningless of his quest to redeem himself.  A solid supporting cast lends credibility and enough distinction to give their relatively small roles some memorability, which is especially important given the amount of Vanger family that viewers will have to keep track of (the novel had a genealogical table to supply readers a ready reference), as well as their interests and loyalties.  But the real lynchpin of the success of the movie is the one who also stole the books, the outlandish character of Lisbeth.  Without a believable punk/goth to anchor the film, the entire story would likely lose the strength of its thematic undercurrents, and Danish director Oplev (We Shall Overcome, Worlds Apart) is fortunate to have found Noomi Rapace, a talented actress able to embody the intelligence, tragedy, sadness, and grit of the character throughout. 

It's all held together well by Oplev, who must lead his actors through some very tough moments involving vicious crimes against women, while also keeping the storyline, adapted by screenwriters Arcel (King's Game) and Heisterberg (Midsummer), the main focus, without becoming confusing in terms of mystery.  He does a very good job at providing just enough on-screen darkness that viewers can sense the dread and horror of the situations, but not too much that it proves too difficult to stomach.  Although much time is expended in Lisbeth's background, it does tie in with the overall theme of the film of a girl that is a possible victim of male aggression, that the story inevitably resonates all the more as the mystery begins to unravel.  Even rudimentary scenes, such as Mikael's scanning through boxes of old photographs for any clue he can find, adds to the tension, particularly in the way the eerie photographs and facial expressions create the mood of dread and foreshadowing of murderous intent. 

Like many thrillers that hinge on uncovering the identity and motive of the killer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does encounter some turbulence in its story by overreaching in the exploitation bag, though the book itself is of this ilk as well.  This is where that early setup of the main thematic material comes into play, as we, the audience, can allow for some creative license in order to engage in the fruition of the story's buildup through the troubled life of Salander and her odyssey through victimization and ultimate empowerment.

Fans of the book will likely be among the biggest detractors of the film translation, as is the case with most popular books made into films, for the alterations made from page to screen.  For those not as invested, the film version does manage to be one of the better thrillers in recent years, with solid characterizations, a capable cast of actors, and, for those not averse to some of the film's harsher moments of sexual abuse and sadism, enough lurid developments in its story to make you squirm in your seat. 

-- Followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2009).  An American remake followed in 2011.

Qwipster's rating:

©2010 Vince Leo