The first of a trilogy of movies based on Stieg Larsson’s international bestsellers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is every bit as dark, disturbing, and captivating as the book. Centered on an elaborate mystery that brings together a magazine editor, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and an anti-social computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), among a host of other related characters, to solve a 40-year-old crime, the film is a faithful adaption that should please fans of Larsson’s books and have others running to read the next installments.
This first adaption – as there is an American version in the works – benefits greatly from being in the book’s original Swedish. The settings throughout Sweden, as well as the casting of an unknown actress to play Salander all bring the book to life in a way that a foreign production seems unlikely to, although that still remains to be seen. Regardless, director Niels Arden Oplev has actualized a thriller that is as atmospheric as it is intricate.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its impeccable casting. Salander is not a traditional heroine and Rapace is especially well-cast. In fact, in many ways she is exactly the opposite of a heroine in that she is anti-social, covered in piercings and tattoos, and brusque to the point of alienating. However, it becomes clear that Salander has her own set of morals that she lives her life by, and they are understandable given the injustice and violence she is all too familiar with.
As the film begins, Salander is assigned a new guardian (she is thought to be unable to care for herself by the courts and therefore, a guardian is responsible for her safe integration into society) and his highly inappropriate and criminal behavior towards her serves as a perfect justification for her form of retaliation. There is no gray in Salander’s world. One either wrongs her or does not – although she always expects the worst – and she interacts with people accordingly. This makes her extremely difficult to get to know and understand, but for the few people in her life she does trust, she has earned their complete loyalty to her, in turn.
Salander’s unlikely, yet believable relationship with Blomkvist begins somewhat innocuously. As a researcher for Dragan Armansky’s Milton Security office, Salander provides background information on Blomkvist (who is currently in the middle of a journalistic scandal) to Henrik Vanger. Vanger is interested in hiring Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, over 40 years ago. Salander’s interest in Blomkvist leads to their working together on the case and his natural acceptance of her strange ways creates a bond that continues to develop throughout the books. It’s this relationship that is at the heart of the film.
As the mystery unfolds and suspects begin to pile up, Blomkvist and Salander combine their respective strengths to piece together evidence that had previously stumped the original investigative team. Their breakthroughs are as exciting and revelatory for the viewer as they are for the characters, and Oplev does a wonderful job of keeping the audience engaged for over two hours. As the mystery is complex and the film needs to focus on the characters as much as plot, it could be difficult to maintain a level of interest and suspense, but again, Oplev understands the importance of giving these complicated characters their due, particularly as all three films were filmed within a period of a year and a half.
Larsson’s books and in turn, its film adaptation, have garnered some criticism because of its graphic sexual violence against women. While Larsson always maintained that he was a feminist, some have argued that these graphic scenes coupled with Blomkvist’s irresistible lure points to a problem with women. The film does not shy away from some of the more brutal moments of the book, but there is nothing gratuitous or voyeuristic about their depiction. When combined with the strength of a character such as Salander, who is adamantly against being viewed as a victim under any circumstances, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo succeeds in bringing to life a wholly original female protagonist who possesses a great deal of strength.
In the end, what sets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo apart from so many other genre films is its complete commitment to character. Larsson’s books are very well-plotted and paced, but the real appeal of his stories lies in creating heroes out of unconventional and not always likable characters. Oplev, Rapace, and Nyquist all understand just how important these characterizations are and they offer a true interpretation that serves as an excellent introduction to the trilogy and a thrilling film on its own.
There is really only one worthwhile bonus feature included in the DVD release: an interview with Noomi Rapace. She articulates much of what went into her involvement and commitment to the character and acknowledges both the gift that playing Salander has been for her, as well as how difficult portraying such an intense character can be.