The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor) (review)

Fire and Claws

I feel like I’ve written nothing but negative reviews lately, which is really misery making. I don’t like listening to myself complain (as fun as it often is to trash bad movies). I prefer to rave over a film, and if I can point you in the direction of a movie you might otherwise has skipped in the process, all the better. So now is the perfect time to rave over the best movie I’ve seen so far this year: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It never played in more than 202 North American theaters on any given weekend — and is still on more than 100 screens — but today it was released on DVD in Region 1 (it arrives in Region 2 on July 19) and so is now available to everyone. And you need to see it if you love movies with compelling characters doing fascinating things and overcoming tremendous obstacles to get to an immensely satisfying end.

You know: the things that movies are supposed to do, but rarely seem to manage.
It’s a shame that this never reached a larger mainstream audience, and it should have, because director Niels Arden Oplev has made a movie that’s fairly Hollywood-slick: If your idea of Swedish cinema is Ingmar Bergman playing chess with Death in black-and-white, you’re not gonna find that here. The film is, alas, in Swedish — alas, because Americans are notoriously terrified of subtitles, for reasons that escape me — but it looks and feels more like, oh, The Silence of the Lambs than what unadventurous moviegoers might consider “foreign.” In fact, this isn’t just the best movie of its kind since The Silence of the Lambs, it might be the only movie of that kind since Jonathan Demme’s classic of psychological mystery and suspense won the Oscar for Best Picture near 20 years ago.

And in that I mean this: Here is a movie that gives female characters full autonomy and authority as people and full participation in the story while also making it its business to peel away the layers of social custom and secret (and not-so-secret) prices women pay for their independence… for even their basic humanity. The Swedish title of film — and Stieg Larsson’s novel, upon which it is based [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — is a lot less chipper and a lot more blunt about what’s going on here: Men Who Hate Women.

Which makes it even more pointed, if inadvertent, an annoyance that Tattoo’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is reduced to a “girl” by the English-language title. She is not a child; she is a woman of extraordinary resources, cleverness, and survival skills, and not one to take abuse meekly. Actress Noomi Rapace is totally riveting a screen presence as Lisbeth, and she makes Lisbeth more mesmerizing the more we see that we’re going to learn tantalizing little about her: just as it seems she may be on the verge of letting her protective shell thaw is when she shuts us out again. Which only makes us want to know her better.

Screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel (Catch That Girl!) and Rasmus Heisterberg have boiled Larsson’s rambling novel down to its key relationship: the one between Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist: Together) — a journalist and publisher of the left-wing magazine Millennium: they cross paths long before they actually cross paths. She’s a top-notch researcher and hacker hired to determine if the libel lawsuit journalist Mikael has been slapped with is legit; when she determines he’s beyond squeaky clean, he is hired by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the murder of his niece… 40 years earlier. And then Lisbeth finds herself unable to keep away from Mikael’s inquiry.

Mikael doesn’t hate women. He’s a sweetheart, which is probably why Lisbeth is drawn to him: her past and present is littered with violent men. (The violence she endures is depicted, in one agonizing scene, in a horrifically graphic manner, yet Oplev never exploits the violence for titillating effect, as far too many movies do when it comes to violence against women.) And the case clearly pushes Lisbeth’s buttons, too, for as she and Mikael dig into the decades-old murder, they uncover more horrors about how awful men can be to women.

The procedural aspect of Tattoo is solidly, suspensefully told; the power of how Oplev lets it unravel is visceral, from Lisbeth’s subdued rage and calm dispensing of a cold revenge to, in one wonderfully eerie moment, a series of still photos bringing alive a girl dead 40 years. It’s hard to imagine how this could be topped… but The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second installment in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, opens in the U.S. on Friday. I can’t wait.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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