As time goes on and forensic science advances it seems to be more and more difficult to craft a modern day whodunit. There are just too many cameras and ways to analyze fibers, fingerprints and DNA. Plus, with filmmakers’ penchant for creating miraculous technology that can enhance grainy, low-resolution pictures into crystal clear, high-definition images, culprits have to be extremely lucky just to commit the crime. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the rare films that are able to craft a believable, contemporary murder mystery while weaving effortlessly through today’s technological advances. More importantly, the story is extremely well told.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a resourceful financial journalist who’s known for his research and investigation skills. His recent trouble with the law has made him somewhat of a celebrity and he catches the eye of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) of the secretive Vanger clan. Henrik hires Blomkvist to find out what happened to his favorite niece, Harriet Vanger, who disappeared forty years ago. Blomkvist’s investigation draws the attention of troubled and eccentric hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and the two join forces to tie up loose ends in a case that’s ice-cold. They discover that the Vanger family has a very dark history and that one of the family members may be responsible for Harriet’s disappearance. The closer they get to the truth, however, the more intense the Vangers guard their secrets, putting Blomkvist’s and Salander’s conviction to the ultimate test.
The setup for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s mystery is flawless. The forty-year obstacle forces Blomkvist and Salander to actually do some physical investigation, like interviewing witnesses and suspects, poring over old files and squinting at old, grainy photos; it’s very satisfying to piece together clues as they’re discovered. Fans of old detective novels by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett will also appreciate how the first act plays out, with Blomkvist visiting the urbane Vanger compound and being hired by a wealthy client. The list of suspects is also wonderfully seedy and includes former Nazis and a ritualistic murderer. If the film were simply about solving the mystery then The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would still be a success. What makes the movie extraordinary, however, is the larger and deeper story regarding the two protagonists.
Mikael Blomkvist is an average guy who’s good at what he does and is dedicated to his work, making him the perfect foil for Lisbeth Salander. Where Blomkvist is passionate, Salander is intense. Where Blomkvist is strong, Salander is ferocious. Where Blomkvist is good-hearted, Salander is righteous and combats evil in the most extreme ways. Both characters are handled marvelously and thoughtfully by their actors, especially Noomi Rapace, however it wasn’t enough to simply rely on the performances. The filmmakers courageously force the audience to live with the characters to experience their lives. Blomkvist has close friends and a loving family support network, whereas Salander is a loner and her life is relentless brutality that’s sometimes difficult to watch. Audiences will have to endure witnessing men cruelly beat her and subject her to heinous sexual deviancy. The direction during these scenes isn’t artful; it’s utilitarian. That choice raises these moments to an uncomfortable level of realism that results in some of the most powerful moments in cinema.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is presented in Swedish, but American audiences shouldn’t be put off by the subtitles. Aside from the foreign language, the film doesn’t feel foreign at all. Furthermore, there are a few universal clichés that will have U.S. viewers feeling right at home. Apparently, long-haired, overweight computer geeks are the same all over the world.
The film runs roughly two and half hours long, but the time will fly by and audiences will leave the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth and were told a compelling, well-rounded and fulfilling story. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first film adaptation of three unpublished books written by the late journalist Stieg Larsson. All three books have been adapted to film and with any luck, the remaining two movies will be released in the United States as well. If and when that day comes, American cinema will be better for it.
Editor’s Note: I originally wrote some hopeful words about the two remaining books in the series being adapted to film. As a publicist and a reader have pointed out, the other two books already exist as movies. Working Author regrets the error.