The Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes with a certain amount of buzz. It was a hit in Europe, and no less an authority than The New York Times' columnist Frank Rich wrote, "The animus driving Dragon Tattoo seems more timely every day. The more we learn about the shell games practiced by our own C.E.O.'s during the pre-crash bubble, the more we share [author Stieg] Larsson's outrage that none of them are doing time."
To that I'd say, "Which pipe do you spend most of your time smoking, Mr. Rich?"
To be fair, Rich was writing about the source novel, the first in a trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist and Communist. I haven't read the book, which has sold eight million copies around the world, so it's entirely possible that director Niels Arden Oplev's routine if effectively narrated tale—which can be characterized as a meeting of Se7en, Ten Little Indians, Blow-Up and Celebration—doesn't do justice to what Rich characterizes as a kind of Balzacian novel about the corrupt nexus of recidivist Nazi sympathizers and wicked capitalists. To be sure, the Nazis are present and accounted for in this film, but the milieu of rich people is so vaguely sketched that I couldn't tell you the particular business specialty of the Vanger family, the warped clan at the center of the events.
The premise is inviting: A disgraced, rumpled, middle-aged muckraking independent journalist (hello!) named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and a pierced, tattooed, goth chick named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) team up to investigate the "40-year-old murder of a 16-year-old," as the latter nicely puts it. The disappeared teenager is Harriet Vanger, the attractive blond daughter of an alcoholic, unrepentant Nazi named Gottfried Vanger, one of four brothers who inherited the family fortune back in the day. Mikael's services are engaged by Gottfried's brother Henrik, who is the only decent egg among his siblings and a surrogate father to Harriet before she disappeared back in 1966. Henrik believes that a member of his unsavory clan killed Harriet, and he thinks that Mikael is the man to put fresh eyes on the case.
Desperate for employment, Mikael takes the job, which requires that he move to the island and winter in a cottage filled with boxes and boxes of old case files. Where does Lisbeth, the girl with the dragon tattoo, fit in? Well, we meet her early on, where we learn that she's an ace computer hacker who works for a shadowy security company. We also learn that she has a dark history of her own, one of violence and mental illness that requires her to be the ward of a state-appointed (and quite vile) guardian. Lisbeth is also involved in a couple of startlingly violent early scenes that have little to do with the story.
Rapace brings a scrawny hunger reminiscent of the young P.J. Harvey, but it's a limited part in which she alternates between surly anti-sociability and earnest clue gathering. The punky Lisbeth uses her skills to assemble intelligence dossiers on anyone that a sufficiently interested client wants to investigate. She takes an interest in Mikael's progress, following along by hacking his computer while he works on the island. Soon she joins forces with him directly, and the two of them piece together clues from Harriet's diary and old photographs. Along the way, the film nicely contrasts old-fashioned gumshoe methods (sorting through dusty old newspaper and police archives) and newfangled data processing (Apple laptops are a must for the modern crime solver).
What makes this film a compelling watch are the unusual lead characters, both of whom are appealing underdogs with little to lose. However, it must be said that it's disappointing that the film depicts Lisbeth's apparently sapphic orientation as a mere symptom of her psychological damage; her discovery of male company is treated as a sign that she's on the road to recovery. (However, the men need help too: It's not for nothing the Swedish title of Larsson's novel translates as Men Who Hate Women.) This two-and-a-half-hour film moves right along, but at the end of it all it's just another serial killer tale, complete with spooky Bible quotes. There is, however, a twist at the end that piques my interest in seeing the next film. That film has already been made, and it's called The Girl Who Played With Fire. And if you miss the Swedish versions of The Girl ..., the Hollywood remakes are in the works.