The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as is often the case with imported foreign works, is best understood through the lens of its original title: Män som hatar kvinnor, or “Men who hate women.” Based on the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, the Swedish film is an engrossing look at the allure of obsession, but it’s also a brutal, uncompromising experience meant to vividly explore the depths to which some men go to own and ultimately destroy women. There are scenes of sexual violence as uncomfortable as anything you will see in mainstream cinema, and I would be lying to say that I did anything other than suffer through them. But there’s a point to such suffering, even at a fictional remove, and director Niels Arden Oplev knows it. Those dark moments aren’t designed to engender pity for the women in question, or to shock the viewer, or even to provide motive for the victims — though they do all of that — but to ultimately illuminate the bitter truth that, like it or not, these things happen all the time. Larsson was a journalist by trade, and as such, his crime stories couldn’t be about anything other than the duty of forcing truth on the reader. The film adaptation of his novel is a gut-wrenching, propulsive thriller, packed with emotion, horror, and fascinating characters. And running through it all, like a slender thread, is a harrowing sense of reality.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a political journalist at the Swedish magazine Millenium (and a pretty obvious stand-in for Larsson) who at the film’s outset is involved in a libel case with Hans-Erik Wennerström (Stefan Sauk). Blomkvist runs a story based on leaked intel that Wennerström is actually an international crime boss, but once the story runs, his sources vanish, and with no evidence, Blomkvist is found guilty of libel and sentenced to six months in minimum security. However, he’s got a few weeks to kill before his sentence starts, and it’s in this limbo between the free and imprisoned worlds that the narrative takes off.
Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), an aging industrialist, to investigate a 40-year-old unsolved case: Henrik’s niece, Harriet (Julia Sporre), disappeared when she was 16 from the small island where the family had an estate. Oplev’s got a wonderful feel for what literary details make great cinematic moments. For instance, Henrik believes that Harriet was killed by a member of his extended family, and that the killer has been sending him framed flowers every year on his birthday as a cruel joke on the framed flowers Harriet gave him years earlier. The shot where he reveals this to Blomkvist is simple but powerful, pulling back slowly as a pair of cabinet doors swing open to display an eerie collection of dead blossoms, hidden from the world for decades. One of the perils of adapting a book to film (aside from the necessary evil of abridging and rewriting the story) is that so many moments that live in the mind of the reader make for dull exposition on screen. But Oplev, working from a screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, knows how to skillfully translate those imagined moments into visual ones. Intrigued by the locked-room scenario of Harriet’s disappearance, Blomkvist takes the case and moves into a small house on the island to begin the investigation.
The other half of the narrative deals with the titular tattooed girl: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a twentysomething punk and hacker who makes a living in part by doing background checks for various clients, and who checks out Blomkvist for Vanger before he gets hired. Thanks to difficulties in her past and the intricacies of a foreign social care system whose inner workings aren’t totally spelled out, Lisbeth depends on a legal guardian for access to her money since the government has decided someone with a past like hers — she was in a psychiatric institute as a child — can’t be allowed to make their own decisions. Lisbeth is the wounded mirror image of Harriet, both young women increasingly oppressed by the world around them and unable to discover a way out. She stays interested in Blomkvist’s work even after she’s officially done checking up on him, and it’s her growing concern with his investigation that leads their paths to cross.
More than that would be difficult to describe without endangering the delicate balance of mystery and terror that Oplev stunningly builds throughout the film. One of the best things about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the way that Blomkvist and Lisbeth go about organically solving the mystery. There are no crime labs, no easy answers, and most importantly, none of the fake technology that permeates Hollywood thrillers and renders them dated and laughably fake the moment they arrive. Blomkvist and Lisbeth use Google to start research, or Photoshop to try and summon a detail from a scanned version of an aging photograph. By placing the detective story firmly in the real world and having its characters use the tools we know exist, the film feels instantly believable, and the resulting untangling of a decades-old web becomes that much more engaging. In its way, the film is a loving tribute to classic detective stories that rely on brains and willpower, and there’s even a moment that calls back to the classic bit where the wise sleuth summons the suspects into the drawing room to address their crimes and smoke out the killer.
But the film is also more than that, dealing with everything from a virulent strain of racism and evil to the utter depravity that a killer can visit upon his victim in the name of faith, or purity, or just plain hatred. Sexual violence is at the heart of the story, and though Oplev certainly doesn’t shy away from some of it, he manages to keep it from feeling gratuitous. The film is about obsession and retribution, and about the cyclical horrors we teach ourselves. These scenes show Oplev’s expert control of pacing and restraint, even as they wound your heart.
It’s only toward the end that Oplev stumbles a bit, insisting on perhaps a too-literal adaptation of the film that results in three or four endings, one after the other, leaving the final product about 20 minutes too long. But it’s a testament to the filmmaker’s skill that the first two hours are as breathless and riveting as they are. The entire cast is solid, including the sprawling members of the Vanger clan that variously aid and impede Blomkvist’s investigation, but it’s Nyqvist and Rapace at the center that make the film special. He’s intelligent but not dense, witty but never hammy, and he’s one of the most enjoyable modern detectives around. Rapace is compelling every second she’s on screen, and manages to breathe life into Lisbeth’s troubled past and occasionally awful present without ever feeling clichéd. The chemistry between the two actors is undeniable, and grows so naturally through the film that you start to take their performances for granted.The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the greatest kind of genre film in that it transcends its origins and becomes a story about the people involved, not just the puzzle they’re figuring out. It’s smart, haunting, and unforgettable.