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.

9 comments:

Longman Oz said...

Hey Joel. I think that I put this a bit more baldly when I reviewed it, but "...does nothing to challenge, betray or even exemplify the conventions of the thriller" was the key drawback for me. Simply put, it offered nothing that British police procedural television dramas (in particular) have not been coming up with for years... nay... decades.

For me, there was a fantastic opportunity here to take the source material and do something far more interesting with it from a cinematic point of view. For example, what if Salander and Blomkvist never meet in person, but form this intense and anonymous relationship through her fascination with him and his desire to solve the case? Such an approach, with a bit more thought, could well open the door to some interesting modern explorations as to how we interact with each other.

I also think that your comparison to "Silence of the Lambs" is quite apt. However, I can look elsewhere for morality, so please give me Lector & Clarice over Goth & Journo any day! :-)

Anyway, I understand that this is the first in a trilogy that were all shot around the same time. I think that this approach shows in the film in a variety of ways - not least the emphasis on the two main protagonists at the expense of anything close to a worthwhile plot.

Honestly? I was pretty bored.

MovieMan0283 said...

I found elements of the film intriguing enough to sustain my interest, but I kept continually wondering why this story has had such widespread appeal. Several years on the bestseller list, rave reviews, a major adaptation and a Hollywood remake in the works. It's solid but it's entirely un-exceptional. In that sense, I was a bit mystified. I wonder what my response to the film would have been without having heard of the book. I think I still would have felt a little let-down because the somberness of the movie, and the ways in which it entices the viewer to wonder what twists lie beyond the horizon, set up expectations of weight which are never quite fulfilled.

Nonetheless, as I said, it was well-made. In the end, my #1 objection would be those two rape scenes, which felt entirely gratuituous, even as I can see what the filmmakers were going for.

As for morality, most of my favorite characters are downright evil and I would count truly objectionable films - to say the least - like Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation among the greatest ever made. What bugs me about Silence of the Lambs is its hypocrisy, the way it flatters its audience by making the sophisticated killer tailor to their expectations: he's a snob, but not a misogynist; a cold-blooded killer but indulges in sentimental chivalry; is willing to get his hands - and teeth dirty - but has impeccable cultural tastes. So viewers get to have their cake and eat it too, and that sort of thing always irritates me. Doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad movie or even not a great one, but I think its integrity is somewhat compromised by the extent to which it plays it safe.

Sam Juliano said...

I'm engaged now in frantically putting together the Monday Morning Diary and another post, but I just wanted to say that I saw this film on Friday night, and for the most part was fascinated and unerved, but it was definitely a bit too long for this kind of thing and the plot turns were so onrushing that there was little chance here for character development. Still the three leads were magnetic, and there were a number of striking individual scenes. I hear what you are saying Joel about playing it safe, and understand why Longman may havge been bored after a while as it was a very long film.

Longman Oz said...

Joel, two words - Dan. Brown. Unfortunately, the wisdom of crowds is typically more myth than substance when it comes to literature! I know, I am a frightful snob at times, but...

I entirely agree that the sexual assault scenes are deeply discomfiting to sit through - especially because they are so bluntly inserted into the plot. The guy involved has to be one of the most crudely drawn characters that I have come across in a while. A sort of Uncle Monty-type character as imagined by Ralph Steadman...

I fully appreciate that Lector was a(nother) cartoon figure. However, I still think that it is one of the best and daring Hollywood adaptations of a novel since the heyday of the seventies... Maybe that is a backhanded compliment and maybe I remember it favourably because of the impression that it made on me first time around. However, I think that it was/is a startlingly good yarn, even if it is flawed when you dig deeper into it.

Finally, Sam, the length did not help, but I started losing interest as early as Blomkvist's first encounter with Old Man Vanger. Felt like the sort of mystery that they stick on afternoon TV!

MovieMan0283 said...

Longman, I should have stressed the acclaim rather than the popularity. Dan Brown, however many books he sells, does not have much critical legitimacy, but Girl with a Dragon Tattoo comes highly recommended. And as I said, flipping through it looked like a good book. And the movie was a good movie. Just, it seemed to me, rather unexceptional.

Sam, I'll be interested in your further thoughts on the matter. Heading over right now to check out the Monday Morning Diary.

MovieMan0283 said...

Also, I should point out that whatever Dan Brown's flaws, he does not lack hooks!

Troy Olson said...

"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."

That's a Bingo, and it looks like Longman Oz, above, has the same opinion (hearkening to British crime procedurals seems dead-on, as this had a very PRIME SUSPECT feel to it). It's never a bad movie, it's just a perfectly average, normal, thriller-mystery with above-average filmmaking.

Needless to say, it it likely better than whatever American version is sure to come out. There's a generic sameness to pretty much all of these types of films that get made here in the States, pretty much all trying to use the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS template and add more "shocking" bits. We need another film to break from the stock template, like LAMBS did.

I did not read the book, but my wife did and to my surprise, she enjoyed it (she sticks with more "literary" books and stays away from the Dan Brown type tripe). She also didn't like the movie as much as she liked the book, mostly because the movie failed to flesh the characters out as much, which I guess is typically the case.

Castor said...

Welcome to LAMB!

MovieMan0283 said...

Yeah, Troy, everyone seems to dig the book, for whatever reason. Must be the writing style/storytelling.

Carson, thanks - I'd forgotten about that! (Check out, LAMB, readers if you've not yet - a great resource for movie blogs. It's linked up in my "About Me" section above.