The first film adaptation of the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson's posthumously published Millennium Trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an enigmatic mystery thriller fired by the growling intensity of its goth-girl heroine Lisbeth Salander (ferociously played by Noomi Rapace). Although the large dragon tattoo that covers her back is never directly addressed in the film, the Asian symbol of primordial vengeance lurks gracefully at the frayed dark edges of every scene.
Lisbeth is a freelance computer hacker/activist who comes to the aid of financial journalist/magazine editor Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), whose efforts at exposing corporate corruption have resulted in a prison sentence for libel. In the months before abdicating his freedom, Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to solve the 40-year-old mystery of his niece Harriet's disappearance from the family's island estate when she was 16 during a family gathering. Lisbeth has been keeping tabs on Blomkvist's computer activities for a client and finds herself in the unlikely position of teaming up with Mikael to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger, whose vanishing seems connected to other such similar cases in the area over several generations.
Following in the same vein as The Red Riding Trilogy, here is an infectiously compelling mystery brimming with intriguing characters and plenty of twists and turns.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a sophisticated piece of exploitation cinema that announces its identity as such early on. Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is the newly appointed attorney responsible for doling out financial support to Lisbeth. During their initial meeting, Nils makes it clear that Lisbeth is expected to perform certain favors in exchange for any additional spending money she might need. Poor Nils should know better than mess with such an obviously bad-ass chic, but he rapes her anyway. Soon the phallus is on the other foot, and director Niels Arden Oplev takes great satisfaction in rewarding Lisbeth with her quick and just revenge. Definitely not for the squeamish, the over-the-top scene takes on a camp quality as Nils is more than paid back in kind.
With such genre formalities out of the way, the film sets about tackling skeletons in the closet of the Vangers, a rich family of Swedish industrialists. As the wealthy former head of his family's companies, Henrik Vanger offers to help with Mikael's legal problems and flailing magazine if he will unravel the mystery surrounding his niece under a pretense of writing about the family history.
With more than a passing reference to Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up, Lisbeth and Mikael tear into the case from a guest house on Hedeby Island where rival family members still live. The sleuthing duo examine photographs of Harriet just before she vanished with a fine tooth comb of modern technology. The possibility that Harriet is looking directly at her abductor in a photo taken during a parade fills the film with a ripe brand of suspense. The fetishistic experience of searching for clues where none have been found before serves as a major hook that contributes to the romantic connection that builds between Lisbeth and the much older Mikael.
Although the film's violent set-piece climax is drawn out to comic proportions, and the final tableau rings with a false note of commercial satisfaction, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a beautifully crafted thriller that kicks you in the head, heart, and libido with equal force. Grade: B
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