It's complicated

Hacker meets journo and pleasure meets pain in this complex screen adaptation

Apr 14, 2010 at 12:00 am

The problem with bringing an incredibly successful mystery novel to the big screen is that fans know the ending. No matter how stylish the film, without new twists and turns to leave audiences guessing, it'll never top the book.

Director Niels Arden Oplev would probably be happy to learn that my companion, who has read Stieg Larssen's thriller (I've not), still found herself engrossed and entertained by his faithful adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. For me, however, it was mostly exploitation cinema gussied up as an art-house import.

Mixing an old-fashioned whodunnit with gritty sociopathic shocks and brooding Gen-Y cynicism, Oplev's flick plays like Agatha Christie meets Se7en, ping-ponging back and forth between vintage sleuthing and disturbing sexual violence. There's a rich industrialist's family filled with contemptible scoundrels, an isolated estate, a decades-old mystery and, of course, dark secrets. There's also shocking sexual violence, as well as grisly crime scene photos.

Disgraced after losing a libel trial, middle-aged muckraker Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) teams up with bisexual Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to solve the disappearance and possible murder of 16-year-old Harriet Vanger some 40 years earlier. Working from a cottage on the Vangers' island enclave, the two slowly uncover unsavory skeletons in the wealthy family's closet as they draw closer to solving the mystery. Of course, it involves serial killers, Bible passages and Nazis. (In Europe, it's always the damn Nazis.)

Girl has lurid energy to burn, and it's filled with edgy yet sophisticated imagery that expertly plays off its barren Swedish setting. But the story is seamy pap, with plot twists that'd feel at home in a V.C. Andrews novel and melodrama that plays like a less insane version of Twin Peaks. More annoyingly, Oplev's final act is filled with one expositional dump after another. After spending two-and-a-half hours tracking down the pieces of Vanger jigsaw puzzle we're handed detail-filled monologues and flashback montages that reveal all the facts and motivations Mikael couldn't uncover. It's a disappointing cheat, since the movie, up until its end, was doing a pretty good job of doling out its secrets. As with most complicated novels, you can't help but think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would have made a better miniseries.

Despite all this, there's much to recommend about this well-paced movie. Larssen was a sharp and subversive social critic (he died in 2004), turning his crime drama into a scathing critique of sadistic misogyny in Swedish society. The book's original title was translated into "Men Who Hate Women," and knowing that makes the experience of watching some of the film's more brutal moments a bit more justifiable. A passionate enemy of right-wing extremists, the author was unflinching in his fight against contemporary neo-Nazis, and his story clearly reflects that mission.

It might sound odd, but Girl is both more and less morally intact than The Silence of the Lambs, which is viewed as the gold standard in serial killer flicks. While it doesn't descend into the sneering misanthropy of Jonathan Demme's film (notice how Hannibal Lecter is held up as a character to admire), it misses the core humanity of Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling. 

Which isn't to say it doesn't try. Lisbeth is actually more fascinating than the story she's in. Rapace does a terrific job of balancing her traumatized character's wounded dignity, buttoned-up vulnerability and fierce, anti-authoritarian resourcefulness. The truth is, Oplev's movie flags every time she leaves the screen. Unfortunately, she's not the protagonist (Mikael is), and her character is kept at arm's length. While it's a nice twist to have the guy play the voice of decency while Lisbeth remains an avenging moral relativist, the film keeps its best asset an inscrutable cipher.

At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111. It opens Friday, April 16, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].