Film Review: Part 1 – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

In regard to world cinema, 2010 should go down as the year of Lisbeth Salander.  Here is one of the more uniquely fascinating characters of recent years, she is an enigma that invites us to look at her a little closer, but pushes us away just as we begin to peel at her multiple layers.  She is at the forefront of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009), a Swedish film directed by Niels Arden Oplev, released in the U.S. earlier this year.  It is based on the first book of a bestselling trilogy, written by Stieg Larsson, and it is the best film of the series.  The movie is a taut, suspenseful, and thrilling murder mystery, but it’s also more than just that.  We find ourselves engrossed not only with the case at hand, but also with the young woman involved in the investigation.

Lisbeth is inhabited by actress Noomi Rapace, in a star-making performance.  In the film, Lisbeth is showcased as a person that lives her life set to her own rules, in contrast to what is considered “proper” by mainstream society.  Her hair is jet black, she wears skintight black leather, and a collar of spikes wraps around her neck.  She has countless piercings that adorn her ears and face, and her eyes hide behind a thick wall of black eyeliner.  Rapace has such fierceness in her portrayal of Lisbeth; her exterior is so tough and brazen that we believe that this is not an actor playing a character, but a real character that has become numb to her environment, due to her past.  This is such a good performance by Rapace that we almost assume that she is like this in real life, but after watching her in a number of interviews, seeing her sweet smile, warm laugh, and charismatic personality, I was even more in awe with how well she transformed in to this completely different person.

One half of the film revolves around Lisbeth, apart from the murder mystery.  She is a freelance researcher, photographer, and computer hacker.  Many times Lisbeth is found easily breaking in to other people’s personal computers, hard drives, and emails, scouring to find that critical piece of information.  She has a photographic memory, which allows her to remember how things were organized in a room, or memorize a particular piece of writing word for word.  Despite her profound skills and abilities, Lisbeth has had a history of trouble, violence, and a constant rotation of foster guardianship.  There is also a history of abuse in her life.  Her mother was a victim of domestic abuse by her father, and her present guardian has more than just a faint sexual interest in herself.  This leads to a number of scenes of very difficult brutality, as we watch Lisbeth deal with these multiple monsters in her world.  It’s easy to see how this correlates to her present personality, and her distrust toward just about everyone.

It is Lisbeth’s experience with violence toward women that causes her to be intrigued with the second hero of the film, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquist).  Six months away from serving a prison sentence for libel, Blomkvist is hired by business mogul Henrik Vanger (Sven Bertil-Taube) to help solve a forty-year old mystery regarding the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, from the island that their family resides on.  Blomkvist has a special interest in the case, with Harriet actually being his babysitter when he was a child.  Lisbeth, who actually investigated Blomkvist during his own trial, stumbles upon the case while hacking in to his personal computer.  From there, the two form an unlikely team, as they help each other unravel the mystery behind Harriet, the dark secrets that many members of the Vanger family appear to be hiding, and the very dangerous discovery who is responsible.

At about two and a half hours, the film never seems to slow down from its constant pace.  The clues are revealed logically and quickly, in a way the film can work well as a stand alone procedural.  There are a lot of names, dates, events, and other tiny details that are incorporated in to the story, but we never feel that we are left behind.  The Vanger family is a large and complicated group, but the film does a good job at letting us know who is who and how each person fits within the greater scheme of the family tree.  One particular element that I feel was used very well was how Mikael and Lisbeth use photography to help them solve the case.  A number of photographs of one particular event that Harriet attended are highlighted over and over again, at different times and at different angles.  As multiple pictures are discovered from this event, we become ever more glued to the screen, wondering why Harriet was at this place, but even more importantly, whom Harriet was with at the time.

What sets this film apart from other stand-alone mysteries is its concern with character.  The movie allows us time to step away from the plot to concentrate on the main characters and their backgrounds.  For Mikael, we learn that he is an idealistic news journalist, willing to go above and beyond what is needed to get the story and expose the criminals for who they are.  We also learn about his history with the Vanger family, and his experiences being brought up and looked after by Harriet herself.  For Lisbeth, we get a good grasp of her rough childhood in to adolescence, and how that dark world followed her to the present day.  However, that doesn’t mean that she is a cold and angry person to everyone.  In an effective scene near the end, Lisbeth visits her mother, and through their interaction we see a side of her that she is not willing to show anyone else, the soft core beneath the outer shell.  Even Henrik Vanger has a chance to be seen as a multi-layered character.  In fact, the film actually begins with him, establishing the strong bond he still has with his niece, and his belief that her disappearance was due to some malicious cause.

The acting, direction, photography, and editing all combine to create one of the best films of the year.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an intense, unrelenting thriller that also works as a superb character study.  So successful is the film (it is currently the highest grossing Swedish film of all time) that an American remake is already in the works for 2012 with director David Fincher at the helm.  No matter how that version turns out, it does not change the fact that this movie succeeds on all levels, with a strong, mesmerizing lead character not seen before.  She is one of a kind, surviving through hardships that many people would have fallen from.  That resolve will be tested even further with the next two installments of the trilogy.

Final Grade: A+


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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