“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t so much about a girl as it is about a 24-year-old woman who is treated like one by everyone around her; with jet black hair, piercings, goth attire and edgy, defensive attitude to match, she doesn’t make it difficult for people to dismiss, or worse, abuse her. But, unlike the teenage punks we’re used to, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) walks through corporate halls, sitting across from suits marveling at the fruits of her computer mojo — e-mails, tax records, bank statements, legal history, secret photos all compiled neatly. Lisbeth supports herself by hacking and snooping around for dirt on targets for Milton Security. Yet she’s intrigued that her latest project, and the media’s current pet victim, has turned up clean, despite his face being plastered on Times Square-like screens all around town after a conviction for libel.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), until now a respected investigative reporter, was trying to break a story on the corruption and laundering of a financial giant when all of a sudden, doing the right thing turned on him. His jailtime is starting in a few months, and he leaves his role as editor to save his magazine from scandal by association. So when an old rich man, in the form of the warm-hearted Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), offers him a job investigating the disappearance of his niece on his family’s island estate 40 years ago, it seems a perfect chance to get away from the media fiascos of his current life and back to crime-solving. The film is based on the first book of the crime-thriller trilogy by Stieg Larsson and Blomkvist, a clear thinking, undramatic, almost passive fellow seems inspired by author himself, who wrote the novels for pleasure in the off hours of his own job as an editor-in-chief of Expo, an anti-fascist journal. Published posthumously, Larsson’s books soon became wildfire bestsellers all across Europe.
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One of the film’s most enigmatic qualities is its blend of down to earth elements with standard high-drama segments. Lisbeth is a genius hacker, and though this is what brings them together, the mystery solving happens mainly through old-fashioned means — hitting financial archives late into the night, looking through scrapbooks, taping up pictures of the dozens of family member suspects, renting a car to drive to the crime scenes! Long nights in the stacks are not normal Hollywood fare — which is why the characters in the American remake will likely be more action-packed (and more attractive). Michael, with a bad complexion of sorts, and Lisbeth too, in her petite yet fiesty frame, are average looking Swedes — not eye-candy leads in a car-chasing music-thumping mystery. And after all is said and killed, Lisbeth still finds time to visit her mother and hold her hand, one of the few (and most moving) displays of intimacy we’re allowed. The muted emotions and quietness of these scenes, and the utter sincerity with which they’re acted helps balance the inescapable (and entertaining) plot-driving devices: snooping around homes, wrong leads, new suspects. It is, after all, a thriller, so effectively so that you dont notice the almost three hour running time.
Yes, the film has compromised — although at its core, it thematically retains a critique of structural violence as well as personal brutality, it is in the end, a more tame version of the book, actually titled “Men Who Hate Women.” Though, to its merit, it does not avert its eyes from the worst: The film contains one of the most disturbing depictions of rape I’ve seen — and also one of the most deeply satisfying scenes of revenge. Despite a deeply traumatic past (which the director wisely refuses to cliché in flashback), Lisbeth refuses to play the victim, and for this I am grateful. It almost (almost!) redeems the problematic reformed-lesbian arc: For a few seconds early in the film, before forming the crime-solving hetero-duo, Lisbeth wakes up next to her seemingly happy and loving girlfriend, who we never see again. Of course the damaged, abused girl simply needed a nicer older man to show her real love.
In the end, the film doesn’t go far enough — yet the beginning is so strong and Lisbeth so unnervingly mysterious that I declare the very the last scene a fluke. The last minute seems a betrayal to a character meticulously built on subtle acting, things unsaid, gaunt demeanors and gaunter silhouettes against frigid landscapes. Just disregard it as a tacked-on crowd-pleaser — forgive the flaws and stomach the subtitles, watch this version and its sequels — if only because the Americans are sure to butcher it worse.