[2 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In most mysteries, the question of “how” is just as important as the “who.” We’ve all heard the jokes about the game Clue, where Colonel Mustard did “X” with “Y” in the Conservatory (or wherever), and most whodunit denouements only pay lip service to the killer. Instead, they spend an elaborate amount of time painting a portrait of the various events and interventions that lead to the crime in the first place. The “who” is just the icing on a criminal cake loaded with conjecture, coincidence, innuendo, and inconsistencies. Toss in a little dumb luck and the occasional element of entrapment, and the “how” instantly becomes the case. Everything within it ends up leading to identification, never the other way around.
In his book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the late author (and controversial journalist) Stieg Larsson explored the mechanics of “how” focusing on a disgraced investigative reporter, an angry young computer hacker, a sordid Swedish family legacy, and a 40 year old missing persons case. Offsetting each facet to focus on smaller points, as well as linking everything together in ways that seem surreal at first, the bestselling novel became the foundation for The Millennium Trilogy (named after the magazine that ‘hero’ Mikael Blomkvist publishes and writes for). Published posthumously, it showed Larsson as a regular rival to such well known mystery mavens as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and more recently, Thomas Harris.
The film adaptation by director Niels Arden Oplev (now available on DVD and Blu-ray) recreates the meticulous mechanics of Larsson’s story expertly. We are introduced to Blomkvist as his trial is ending. Seemingly set up by an old friend, he is found guilty of slandering a high profile businessman (accusation: he is actually a drug smuggler and weapons dealer) and is sentenced to prison. Meanwhile, a security company hired by a secretive concern is investigating Blomkvist’s situation, using Goth gal PC whiz Lisbeth Salander as their ace. She is amazing with a laptop, able to track the journalist’s comings and goings as well as accessing his hard drive and ‘Net-based data. As a ward of the state, Lisbeth is frequently subjected to the paternalistic perversions of a bureaucracy bent on keeping her a victim. But in many ways, she is more than capable of holding her own.
Blomkvist is eventually contacted by a representative of The Vanger Concern and asked to meet with aging CEO Henrik. Over four decades ago, a favorite niece named Harriet disappeared (and is now presumed dead). Before he dies, he wants closure on the case, hoping that Blomkvist can use his skills as a celebrated investigator to uncover the truth. Of course, the local police are baffled by his arrival, and the rest of the Vanger family is impatient with Henrik’s folly. Eventually, Blomkvist learns of a connection to the Bible, religious fundamentalism, WWII, and the Nazis, as well as a link to his own childhood. Lisbeth enters the picture when she uncovers some information that she thinks Blomkvist can use. Obsessed with discovering his secrets, she eventually joins him to try and solve the mystery surrounding Harriet once and for all.
Meticulous to a fault, brutal in many of its “surprises”, and satisfying as an example of pure post-modern suspense, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo argues for good storytelling crafted with an attention to detail. Director Oplev got his start in television serial drama and that training aids him tremendously here. For almost the first hour, Blomkvist and Lisbeth function separately, each with their own arc and psychological complications. When he eventually brings them together, the chemistry clicks since we’ve seen how far each have come to their particular position in life. Even better, the many members of the Vanger Concern (just call them “the red herring collective”) each get enough backstory and byplay to keep them invested in the outcome. Juggling all these elements, Oplev delivers a stark, stunningly assured walk through ancient horrors and long dormant deaths.
The results are spellbinding. Sure, some of it comes across as shocking and quite craven (there are two rapes toward the beginning, each one centering around Lisbeth and her situation) and the eventual lead love affair appears slightly off kilter and tacked on. But that’s the beauty of this film. Once you realize that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is going to be about more than a missing person, that it’s going to unlock an entire treasury of fetid family folklore as well as investigating the “fall” of its two main protagonists, you accept the expanded scope and ease readily into Oplev’s point by point breakdown. While the mystery might not hold up to the closest narrative scrutiny (we have to remember that the original inquest happened during the ‘60s, when such luxuries as online databases and instant record tracing was unavailable), it is still satisfying in ways that many American films can only pray to be.
A lot of that has to do with the casting. While Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist is rather passive in how he proceeds, Noomi Rapace is a revelation as Lisbeth. Looking like Joan Jett’s far more fierce sister and deliver most of her dialogue with a glower developed over years of defending herself, the character is forced through the fire (almost literally) before coming into her own. We only get hints at why this dark, depressed punkette is haunted like she is, and the images are powerful indeed. It’s also interesting that, toward the end, Lisbeth becomes far more important to the case than Blomkvist. She uncovers important information, runs many of the more important errands, and when the time comes, saves her companion from danger. There is a minor love story situated inside the main thriller, but it never quite gels the way Blomkvist (or Oplev) seems to think it does.
As for the reveal, it’s a rocket ship, a blast off of horrific implications that takes the viewer into another realm of repugnant truth. Unlike other whodunits which give us realistic (if often insane) reasons for a crime, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo unleashes a legacy of revulsion so pervasive it implicates more than just the villain. Indeed, what we learn at the end suggests that something much more sinister was going on at the Vanger compound and that, instead of going after his previous high profile prospect, Blomkvist should have concentrated on this clan. There is a suggestion of complicity and cover-up that easily lends itself to several more stories, hence the eventual trilogy of tales. Without a satisfying ending here, we could easily assume a planned series strategy. Had there been no other cases after this one, the results would still be as special.
That’s because The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t cater to convention. It doesn’t mandate the standard hero to villain quotient that most thrillers enjoy and gives us flawed, damaged people on both sides of the situation. Some may quibble with the desire to dig deeply into every aspect of Larsson’s book, building the movie from many levels instead of focusing on a chosen few, and it will be interesting to see how Hollywood (it already has its remake gears in motion) will approach this material. By giving the “how” as much import as the “who” - and in this case as well, the “why” - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo becomes a post-modern masterwork. It may not address every need of a commercially conscious viewer, but those with enough patience will be rewarded with something rich - and revelatory.