July 6, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½

Swedish author Stieg Larsson's  book The Girl With the Tattoo had moments so disturbingly chilling and evocative that I had to put it down - only to have to pick it back up again, the same kind of shuddersome grip reminiscent of Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs.  The film version won't shock those of us who read the book in the same way, but whether you have or have not, the film is inarguably a well-crafted thriller.

Larsson's novel has sold about 25 million copies worldwide, and spawned two sequels -- published, alas, posthumously, as Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of fifty in 2004 -- and spawned the film version, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev.  Larsson himself was a journalist who clearly used his own experiences as an activist reporter as a basis for the Mikael Blomkvist character. The screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg makes mostly good decisions about what to cut and condense in adapting the book, while maintaining the gist and the spirit of things, but as is often the case, it still loses a little something in transition.

The story centers around Harriet Vanger, niece of the wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger companies. Harriet disappeared when a young woman, a mystery that had never been formally solved. Harriet was like a daughter to Henrik, who is convinced she was killed. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter being sued by a possibly corrupt industrialist for libel; Blomkvist is not just a reporter but an amateur sleuth. He actually finds he has a vicarious connection to Harriet Vanger, dating back to childhood. (The film spotlights this interrelation more than the book did.) 

At the start of the story, Lisbeth (a startlingly good Noomi Rapace), the titular tattooed, and pierced, girl with aspects of Asberger's syndrome,  is hired to spy on Mikael, to basically hack into his life -- she's a wizard with technology but utterly asocial; her personal life, after a rough childhood and some rather abusive experiences with men, is a closed book. (The original title of the novel and film in Sweden is actually "Män som hatar kvinnor" which translates as "Men Who Hate Women," which gets more overtly at the story's theme.) Lisbeth and Mikael eventually pair up, driven for their own reasons to solve this maddening case, as they dig deeper into the Vanger family's unsettling well of secrets. What seems a simple mystery unfurls layer upon layer.

While the book starts off slow in a prolonged prologue about Wennerstrom's libel case, the film does a nice job cutting to the chase in these early sections; the one time I found myself impatient with Larsson's novel was in its set-up. The adaptation makes quite a few cuts, many of them judicious given the book's overlength, a few of them to the film's detriment. A quite extended denouement in the book -- which wraps up the secondary storyline in satisfying fashion, is much more quickly sped along here. My sense was it was smart to focus that section down, but it may have been compressed a bit too much.

It also makes decision to move the chronology of when Mikael serves his prison sentence from nearer the beginning of his investigation, to the very end.  This works, though it seems odd that they essentially drop the Wennstrom story and his jail sentence for the majority of the film with nary a mention.

Every reader who embraces a book casts the film version in  their own heads; in my case I kept picturing Stellan Skarsgaard, even if he's probably ten years too old for the role of Mikael. But while Michael Nyqvist wasn't who I pictured, he's quite fine in the role, with the required curious face and disappointed features, and the right mix of edge and childlike fear. He's just not Stellan Skarsgard.

I had more trouble picturing the titular character Lisabeth Salander, despite Stieg Larson's vivid portrayal of her [in the subsequent two books her appearance changes in dramatic ways]. Either way, Noomi Rapace absolutely is her. She captures Lisbeth's barely controlled anger under the surface, while slowly warming up as she grows to trust Mikael, letting him - and us - in a bit more, but never completely. Rapace reminded me a bit of 70s/80s actress Linda Manz, with her somewhat mannish features and permanently sullen expression. She has a unique sensuality to her that fits the character perfectly.

There is a brutal rape scene in the film, as vivid here as it was in a reader's imagination. Lisbeth's financial guardian Nils Bjurman, played by Peter Andersson, who looks like a pockmarked, slightly older Philip Seymour Hoffman, desires some kickback in order to help Lisbeth's financial situation. The scene is crucial; it helps one understand why Lisbeth would be so taken by the mystery of Harriet Vanger. And it's a tricky balance for the director, to go too far risks angering and alienating the audience, but to shy away from it risks copping out.  The disturbing scene almost goes on a bit too long, bordering on the exploitative, but mercifully ends before crossing that line.

Oplev is a solid director, whose lovely family film Drømmen (aka We Shall Overcome) is worth seeking out, but I can't help but wonder how the film might have turned out with superior suspense filmmaker behind it. (We might find out eventually, if David Fincher ends up remaking it, as is rumored. Normally, I'm skeptical of American remakes but it's hard not find that match-up compelling.) But the Swedish production is Scandanavian suspense along the lines of Insomnia and Oplev, with cinematographers Jens Fischer and Eric Kress, capture the blacks and blues of the northern hemisphere, and the blood red bubbling under the surface.

The film has a few awkward flashbacks, a shorthanded way of getting at both Mikael and Lisbeth's childhood traumas. While it's necessary to condense these passages from the book they're a little too rushed over. The script also condenses and brings in earlier the finding and researching of evidence found about Harriet's disappearance, including a key discovery, which in the book happen rather climatically but in the film occurs as a turning point a third of the way in. A choice to ratchet up the suspense perhaps.

But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo still works quite well as an unsettling suspense film, that, like the book, comments on contemporary society -- not just Sweden's but the Western world's -- the moral bankruptcy of many aspects of capitalist society, while weaving a most gripping mystery tale. 

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Posted by cphillips at July 6, 2010 10:25 AM
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