The new movie of Stieg Larsson’s mystery novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor), is a quality translation, comparable to what Ron Howard could have done with his Dan Brown films had the source material been worthy.
Larsson’s book was the first in an internationally bestselling trilogy about an investigative journalist who teams up with a quasi-autistic hacker to uncover the truth about a decades-old disappearance. Niels Arden Oplev’s film introduces the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, saggy-eyed and middle-aged) as he is being convicted of libel. His scoop about the purportedly shady dealings of a Swedish industrialist turns out to be not just fake, but a set-up.
Blomkvist has a little time to kill before he’s sent off to serve his sentence, so it’s good timing when another industrialist, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), offers him a job. Several decades prior, Henrik’s niece Harriet went missing. While she has been presumed dead by almost everyone else, the aging Henrik believes she’s still alive, because every year on his birthday, he receives a framed flower in the mail, just like Harriet used to give him. Henrik wants Blomkvist to find out what happened to her. Lacking other serious options and enticed by the promise of a nice cabin on the Vanger estate and a remote island full of crusty, cantankerous Vangers to interrogate, Blomkvist takes the case.
While Blomkvist gets started, the film also tracks a far darker and more chaotic storyline. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a young, leather-clad goth with a photographic memory and a stare that makes it clear anyone else’s opinion of her is the single least interesting piece of knowledge in the universe. Salander works for the private investigation firm Henrik had hired to look into Blomkvist’s background. After she compiles her report — mostly by advanced hacking — Lisbeth keeps fishing around remotely on Blomkvist’s computer, increasingly interested in his new case. Eventually, he figures out what’s going on, and makes Salander a job offer.
Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s screenplay dispenses with several of the novel’s less necessary subplots, throwing viewers more efficiently into the dense mystery. Blomkvist’s investigation into Harriet’s disappearance in short order has Vanger family skeletons (including Nazi collaboration) tumbling out into the wintry air. In keeping with the no-fuss Swedish detective genre, there are no obsessive nightmares for this investigator, just querulous fact-gathering and the occasional raised eyebrow at Salander’s borderline misanthropy.
In Salander’s case, the film is on slightly less firm footing. She’s something of a castaway in this world, navigating with a fearsome intelligence and ability to sift through vast amounts of digital information. What little we see of her life that’s unrelated to the case has to do with the abuses she suffers. In one scene, Salander is somewhat randomly attacked by a group of drunks. In others, we see how her new court-appointed guardian (she’s a ward of the state, due to circumstances that aren’t clarified until film’s end, and even then, not conclusively) systematically brutalizes her, secure in the belief that she has nobody to turn to. This is true, though it doesn’t help him when she enacts a gruesomely, if righteously, extended vengeance.
The film deserves credit for its restraint in depicting Salander’s maltreatment. But it keeps a distance from her and keeps intact only a fraction of Larsson’s thematic subtext about violent societal misogyny; indeed, the original book and film title is “Men Who Hate Women.” Oplev delivers a solid, character-based mystery that incorporates as much of the novel as possible without feeling too dense. The pacing almost never flags, despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time.
The denouement does, however, stall, jamming together another half a film’s worth of exposition into just a few minutes, in order to set up the sequel. It’s a dizzying and mystifying conclusion that doesn’t do justice to what preceded it.