Sunday, March 21, 2010
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has just been convicted of libeling a wealthy industrialist, the reporter's muckraking exposé having itself been exposed as a fraud. Blomkvist knows he was set up, that phony sources and fabricated evidence were used to lure him into a trap, but his sense of stoic resignation is palpable: he refuses an appeal, leaves his publication, even breaks off a relationship with a colleague. And then what does he do? With six months before his sentence begins, six months to relax or reflect or maybe run away? He accepts a job in a barren, isolated region dominated by a sinister, imposing family corporation called the Vanger Group. One of the Vangers, now a very old man, has a mission for Blomkvist: find out what happened to his teenage niece who disappeared in the sixties, and whose case has remained unsolved for forty years. With only half a year before he's behind bars, Blomkvist throws himself into work once again. That's dedication, and its very best, The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo is immersed in this very sense of dedication.
In a way, dedication is the strongest thing the film has going for it. Based on the bestselling mystery novel of the same name - a mystery tale which transcended the boundaries of its genre by garnering widespread acclaim and popular enthusiasm (a Hollywood adaptation waits in the wings) - the movie offers few clues as to why the book has been such a massive hit. Don't get me wrong; it's absorbing, very well-made, thoughtful - but it also does nothing to challenge, betray or even exemplify the conventions of the thriller. At least as presented onscreen, the story is a solid procedural, with interesting characters and a notable theme (the original Swedish title of the movie is Men Who Hate Women). It's a bit of a slow burn at first, the hook is only mildly enticing, and some unnecessarily brutal sex scenes risk alienating us right away. But that dedication of Blomkvist, of the titular female, young hacker Lisabeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace), who joins Blomkvist in his investigation, and of the film itself eventually win us over, drawing us into the mystery and, more importantly, the hunt for its answers.
The missing Vanger is named Harriet; she babysat Blomkvist when he was a toddler, but otherwise the two have no connection and so the hunt proceeds across the distance of time. The film enjoys playing with the past, allowing old media - tourist snapshots, newspaper photographs, newsreel footage - to interplay with high-speed digital media, in a crime-busting collaboration. Amidst all the Ingmar Bergman references (a snarling dockside fight that recalls Hour of the Wolf, intergenerational warfare that recalls all his films, gloomy weather and isolated countryside - or does that just come with the Swedish territory?) there are unmistakable nods to Blow-Up - this time the detection involves not just a single frame enlarged repeatedly, but a slew of other, discarded frames discovered and explored. When Salandar hacks Blomkvist's e-mail to send him clues - involving obscure, brutal Biblical verses about punishing women - he invites her to take part in the investigation, and she joins him in his cabin.
What Lisabeth Salandar brings to the hunt is not only her formidable detective skills and photographic memory, but also a simmering, bruised connection to the very meat of the mystery. As it becomes increasingly clear that the case revolves around sexual and physical abuse of women (a series of vicious, bloody murders become clues in the larger investigation), Salandar's emotional wounds become more pronounced, seeking their cure in revenge. We've already seen her endure and then overcome the advances and eventual exploitation of a legal guardian, who threatens the parolee with bad reports and financial withholding if she does not submit to his perversions. Here, the movie may overstep its bounds: there are two sequences, not graphic (no body parts are shown) but among the most brutal I've ever seen, particularly the second scene. What purpose do they serve? By the end of the film, it becomes clear that they are meant to give us raw, unfettered appreciation of what Lisabeth Salandar - and others like her - have endured. In this sense the movie is not about "men who hate women" but the women who are hated.
Yet this could be conveyed with suggestion, or even a few shocking moments of brutality. The length and cruelty of the two rape scenes (and the sadistic vengeance which follows them) seem excessive, and they don't really belong in a movie which is otherwise a conventional thriller (indeed, before we come to accept that the story has its heart in the right place - if we do come to accept this, given the lurid draw of some of the final revelations - these early scenes seem merely exploitative). The resolution of the mystery (spoiler alert; skip to next paragraph if you don't want any clues) also feels like a missed opportunity, the lines between good and bad in the family remaining sharply drawn - it would have been more provocative and honest if the abuse had been presented not as the activity of several warped individuals in the clan, but pervasive. Imagine if the lovable octogenarian uncle had also molested Harriet? Wouldn't that have been enough to finally crush her spirit, and cause her to flee Sweden forever? Yet the closing reunion scene short-circuits this possibility, and lands us in the realm of safe escapism, in which evil is vanquished and the demons put to rest. The final punchline, with Salandar in a blonde wig, absconding with millions of dollars on a tropical island completes this effect; it feels like something out of a James Bond movie, or perhaps Silence of the Lambs.
That last reference is telling - with its dark atmosphere, focus on a female investigator, and exploration of a serial killer's demented psyche, the book, at least, has been compared to the celebrated Thomas Harris novel and its film adaptation. Morally, despite its excesses, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far superior to Silence, which tut-tutted the depravity of Buffalo Bill but tittered at the upscale murderousness of Hannibal the Cannibal (oh, but his victims are just so gauche!). When Girl conflates social graces with murderous impulses, through a flashback at the end of the movie, it effectively makes bourgeois cordiality seem cold-blooded, rather than cold-bloodedness seem tastefully admirable. Dramatically, however, Girl loses out to Silence, the latter with its made-for-the-tabloid nicknames and female-detective hook; one can see exactly why Silence broke out of its niche, whereas with Girl it's harder to detect.
After seeing the movie in theaters, I perused the novel in a bookstore and was able to draw some hasty, but interesting, conclusions. Firstly, the prose of the book appears to be clearer and simpler than the film's brooding, dense texture. Even as it casts aside subplots (the book seems to have Blomkvist take a Vanger daughter up on her offer of romance), the film does not convey the same straight-ahead, humming clarity I glimpsed on the page. Secondly, those brutal early scenes work much better in the book. The descriptions are not sparing, but they are brief and to the point. Without leaving too much to the imagination, they do not indulge. They tell us, brutally, effectively, what happened, and then they move on. The movie should have followed this approach. Finally, and as I suspected, the novel appears to further explore the accumulating anecdotes and details of the depraved Vanger clan, as only a novel can. This may be something the movie is missing, one reason why it seemed, however well-done, disappointingly straightforward. You can't quite get lost in it, the way the material seems to demand. When Blomkvist lays all those photos out across the wall of his cabin, fashioning an impromptu, rotten family tree, we want to pause and look at each branch in turn, suspecting that there are numerous tales to be unravelled in each twig and bud.
Nonetheless, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is worth seeing. In the end it reminded me of Roger Ebert's incisive observation about Blow-Up, "We are happy when we are doing what we do well, and unhappy seeking pleasure elsewhere." The characters in this movie are never really happy - Lisabeth Salandar certainly isn't - but they come closest when they are immersed in their work. The film respects this and follows suit, resulting in an enjoyable, thought-provoking thriller. Sometimes, dedication pays off.