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

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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.

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Tue, Jul 06, 2010 11:24pm

Good to hear; I loved the book.

Wed, Jul 07, 2010 8:19am

I really liked this movie but mostly because Lisbeth and Mikael have to work on something that it’s not her own back story, which remains open for interpretation, that’s why I didn’t like the sequels

I appears that Daniel Craig will play Mikael on the David Fincher´s adaptation, and Carey Mulligan will play Lisbeth, he’s just right for the part but she’s way to sweet looking for it

Wed, Jul 07, 2010 12:41pm

I’m currently slogging through the first book before seeing this movie. And I want to see the movie, because I’ve heard so many good things about it. But the reading is tough, because the first book is just horrid from a writing standpoint.

It’s like the guy pulled up a list of Things Not To Do from a Writing 101 class and resolved to do each and every one of them. Not once, but many times.

Wed, Jul 07, 2010 3:58pm

Americans are notoriously terrified of subtitles, for reasons that escape me

First as you probably suspect many Americans don’t like to read, and they go to the movies to watch a movie, not to read.

Second, and much more practically, it really does detract from the experience in some way because you’re using your eyes to understand the dialog and so you can miss some things happening on the screen versus when you’re using your ears to understand the dialog and your eyes can focus on what’s happening.

Personally I learned to love subtitles when I became a fan of anime before it really took off here, and your choices (if you had any choice) was either a dub by ludicrously bad voice actors with a translation that may not have any bearing to what was actually being said, versus subtitles which were more accurate (especially in fansubs where it was a labor of love not an unwanted expense).

I still prefer subtitles simply for the translation issue, since even in movies like Crouching Tiger where the dub was done by the same actors so the quality is good, there were quite a few places where the meaning of the dialog was radically changed in order to fit the original cadence.

At the same time, when Zhang Ziyi is kicking ass in the tavern while talking trash, I kinda wish I didn’t have to divide my attention between watching the action and reading the dialog.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Wed, Jul 07, 2010 6:54pm

Worth noting: it’s available to Watch Instantly on Netflix!

Wed, Jul 07, 2010 7:16pm

it really does detract from the experience in some way because you’re using your eyes to understand the dialog

And yet somehow ordinary people all around the planet do manage to read subtitles and enjoy movies. Are Americans stupider than those of other nationalities? Lazier? I don’t want to believe that. So what’s the explanation?

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Thu, Jul 08, 2010 12:07am

By and large, American audiences don’t have to learn to read subtitles. Hollywood produces more movies a year than anyone can see. Foreign films have never been marketed to Americans the way Hollywood markets American films in foreign markets. And the axiom that “90% of everything is crap” is just as true in Europe or Asia as it is here. So while there are certainly subtitled movies worth the effort, there aren’t enough to justify the expense.

Thu, Jul 08, 2010 12:49am

Good movie but for me far from the best movie of 2010. It seems to me Mary Ann is more interested in the undertones and back story of the female lead than the actual main plot of the film, which is the better tale. I wonder how she would have felt had the roles of the sexes been reversed.

Thu, Jul 08, 2010 3:27pm

And yet somehow ordinary people all around the planet do manage to read subtitles and enjoy movies.

Yes, including me right here in America. The point isn’t “enjoyable” vs “not”. It’s “enjoyable” vs “less enjoyable”, and I think it’s hard not to see how all else being equal (which of course as I said it’s not), not having subtitles would be preferable most of the time.

Are Americans stupider than those of other nationalities? Lazier? I don’t want to believe that. So what’s the explanation?

Less willing to put up with the minor inconvenience, and yes, extra work, when they feel they should be able to get movies that are in their native language?

Call it entitlement, call it laziness, I’m not sure I can precisely define it, but yes that’s the general contour. Americans see two movies at the theater, one subtitled and one not, and many of them go “meh, I didn’t come to the movies to read, I’ll see the one that’s in English”.

It’s pretty sad, in any case.

Thu, Jul 08, 2010 4:09pm

I honestly don’t get why subtitles are such a turn off for some Americans. My own mother was ambivalent about seeing Inglorious Basterds when she found out it was mostly subtitled. I can understand if you have some kind of optical issue. I myself find subtitles unbearable on big screens due to eye problems, as I end up squinting to read and then getting headaches, which is the opposite of a fun and enjoyable experience. But I doubt everyone else has a similar issue.

Thu, Jul 08, 2010 5:02pm


I wonder how she would have felt had the roles of the sexes been reversed.

In what sense? If it had been a female Nazi in the mid 20th century who kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered helpless anonymous men? If it had been a man on probation who was raped by his female case officer?

The entire point of this film revolves around the power men have over women that has no analog in any power women have over men. In what way would reversing any of the genders of any of the characters here have better served that theme?

Lenina Crowne
Thu, Jul 08, 2010 6:03pm

Dude, Chris, the original title of the movie is “Men Who Hate Women”. It’s actually about misogyny. You can’t switch it around. That’s like saying, “what would you think about To Kill a Mockingbird if the races were reversed?”

I didn’t really dig the book’s style too much, but the movie sound very exciting. Yay Netflix Instant Queue!

Fri, Jul 09, 2010 8:28am


Mary Ann,

I was more thinking along the lines would you have been ok with a man becoming the judge, jury and executioner/sentencer of women who had harmed him in his life or had harmed the lives of other men.

Fri, Jul 09, 2010 9:11am

I’m not saying that I agree with or condone what Lisbeth does, but within the context of the story, I do understand it. And yes, very often I have praised movies in which men act as judge, jury, and executioner… as they do in almost every action movie Hollywood makes.

Mon, Jul 12, 2010 4:54pm

@ Jester–

Don’t forget what you’re reading is translated from the Swedish…i imagine that makes at least some difference. THe problem i had w/ the first novel (and what i’ve read of the second book so far) is the meandering plot and how everything not Lisbeth-related is a slog to get thru. Can’t wait to see the movie, though.

Wed, Jul 14, 2010 1:33pm

I was wondering when you were going to review this one.

I know the books are beloved but they are pure pulp fiction, and nobody reads old pulp fiction. In a generation, these books will be as forgotten as Valley of the Dolls or The Godfather.

They will live on only as long as the memories of the films that they inspired. The Godfather, oh yes. Valley, not so much.

This was an atmospheric, well done film. The second in the installment, Girl Who Played with Fire, is good too although a different feel to it (and director). But of course as a foreign film it won’t live in many American memories.

And yes, while Blomkvist isn’t a bad character, the trilogy lives and dies with Lisbeth. The books would have sold about 27 copies without her.

Sun, Jul 25, 2010 5:05am

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an excellent film, as is The Girl Who Played With Fire. Noomi Rapace is spellbinding as the troubled genius/hacker/vigilante, Lisbeth Salander. Her quiet, seething intensity,and body language capture the eye and don’t let go. Rapace is also beautiful.
Salander is one of the most intriguing characters in recent fiction. In theatres or in online reviews of the films (and novels), she strikes a chord in a wide variety of people. Stieg Larsson did not live to see the phenomenal success of his creations,and all three books are blemished by a lack of revision/editing. But Lisbeth Salander is unforgettable whether on the page or the screen.

The one thing which confuses me is this: IS ANYONE AWARE THAT AMERICAN FILMS ARE FREQUENTLY DUBBED WHEN VIEWED ABROAD? In Germany,for example,all foreign films are dubbed instead of subtitled. Is anyone going to call people of Germany lazy,illiterate, or uncultured?