The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo began as a trilogy of books by Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson. The novels were an immediate success and resulted in films being made from all three books. This is the first in the so called “Millennium Trilogy.” It won numerous Guldbagge Awards (the Swedish equivalent of the Oscars) including one for Best Film and Best Actress for Noomi Rapace playing the title role. The film has garnered much international acclaim and there is already an American remake being filmed by David Fincher. While an extremely well made and tight crime thriller at times it’s questionable if viewing this can actually be considered a pleasurable experience.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opens with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) being found guilty of libel against a corrupt Swedish business man. Mikael knows he was set up be he also knows that he’ll never be able to prove it and has lost his passion to write in the wake of his very public trial. He’s content to simply wait for his prison term to start when he receives an unusual request. Elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) has been mourning the disappearance of his beloved niece Harriet since 1966. Henrik has always been convinced that Harriet was murdered but the case was never solved. Desperate to have answers before he dies Henrik hires Mikael to try to solve a mystery over 40 years old. Mikael goes to work but unbeknown to him he’s being watched. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a young “researcher” with harsh personality and a troubled past. She had been hired to use her skills at computer hacking to monitor Mikael’s actions during his trial, but she continued to watch his computer activity even after her assignment ended, intrigued by what appears to be a genuinely decent man. Lisbeth sees all the work that Mikael is doing to solve the mystery of Harriet and she soon makes her presence known and is actively helping. The pair close in on answers when they uncover the work of a serial killer from the 60s but they are in greater danger the closer they get.
In some ways The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is more Mikael’s story than Lisbeth’s. His journey and quest is what ultimately unites the two, and their paths don’t actually cross until about forty minutes into the film. Nyqvist does great and somewhat under-appreciated work as Mikael, making him a character who is easy to root for without being a generic beacon of light. That said Rapace worked hard and earned the praise she’s received as Lisbeth. The character is hard edged and damaged on a very deep level, something that is difficult to communicate while still keeping the character relatable. Rapace is able to play Lisbeth as a very strong woman without coming across as putting up a cliched “tough chick” front. Lisbeth’s harsh attitude is well earned, and it never feels like an act. The supporting cast all turn in strong performances as well. From the misfits of the Vanger family to an aging police detective and a somewhat crass hacker, all the characters feel very real. Set during the winter the film has a very gloomy feel to it that is extremely fitting given the story.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was undoubtedly made with great attention to detail and with considerable skill on the part of all those involved. The story being told and the setting however is unrelentingly bleak, to the point that it may turn off some viewers. This is an unquestionably violent movie, but it’s a bit more specific than that as nearly all the violence in the film is both sexual in nature and perpetuated against women. This story is set in a world wher enearly every male character is a predator and every single female character of note is a victim of rape or abuse. The title of the original novel in Swedish actually translates to “Men Who Hate Women,” and it’s clear why that title was used. It makes the entire film feel rather dirty in a way that is highly unnerving. In some ways this effect can be seen as the film succeeding in what it is setting out do. On the other hand for some it may cause the overall viewing experience to be down right unpleasant at times.
Thrillers have a tendency to dip into the worst aspects of humanity, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is certainly no exception. However it dives so deeply into horrific people doing horrendous things that at times it stops being entertainment and begins to feel like punishment. A particularly brutal and unflinching rape scene comes to mind, and from a narrative perspective it’s a scene that isn’t even really necessary. The points the scene makes about the characters in it have already been made in earlier scenes. So it exists only to push the characters and audience beyond the bounds of comfort. Some will find this “cutting edge” while others will find it simply gratuitous. The film is still a strong piece of crime drama that is well acted from start to finish, however it may leave viewers clinically depressed by the end with it’s general outlook on how men treat women.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5