Music Box Films // 2009 // 155 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 25th, 2010
You don't know my family and you don't know what they're capable of.
Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist who began writing novels in his spare time to relax. He never tried to get them published before his untimely death in 2004. Published posthumously, the three books that he completed became an international sensation. The first, entitled Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), changed to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for English-speaking audiences, sold over 8 million copies worldwide. I haven't read the novels, but the film adaptation by director Niels Arden Oplev (Portland) is absolutely fantastic. Spectacularly performed and near-perfect in execution, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller for the ages.
In 1966, a young girl named Harriet Vanger disappeared without a trace, and her doting uncle has spent a lifetime trying to find out what happened to her. Now close to death, he hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, Iscariot) to make one last attempt to find the truth. Try as he might, Blomkvist has no leads to go on until a professional hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace, Daisy Diamond), who has been hired to hack into his computer, finds his files and discovers a pattern Blomkvist never saw. She emails him an answer and, while at first he freaks out that someone's in his system, he tracks her down to hire her considerable skills. Together, they uncover a family history of brutal secrets and appalling violence, and the Vangers will stop at nothing to protect the family name.
At first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't seem like much more than an average cold-case procedural. It has all the elements: a forty-year old murder of a beautiful young girl, a troubled investigator, a wunderkind hacker, and dark family secrets. In lesser hands, the intriguing premise could have been reduced to an average, if still entertaining potboiler. In Oplev's adaptation, however, all of those elements come together beautifully. Solid characterizations, an elegant structure, and a nice balance between the brutal and the beautiful all mesh for an intricate, involving, and emotionally satisfying thriller. It is one of the best I've seen in some time.
When we meet Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, they are in situations entirely separated from one another and from the rest of the film. Blomkvist is on trial for libel from accusing a corporate maven of illegal business practices. He knows that what he wrote was the truth, but the money pushing against him is just too great and he's found guilty. Salander's situation is much more troubling. After years of run-ins with the law, she's in the parole system and her so called guardian is a sadistic scumbag who forces sex on her anytime she wants access to her money. She takes the abuse, waiting for her chance to get revenge. For the longest time our two protagonists have only the most marginal connection to one another, though all the seeds are sown to give us what we need to know about the characters. Their connection stems from there so, when it finally does happen nearly halfway through the film, it makes perfect sense.
The two make an odd couple. Lisbeth is heavily tattooed, pierced, and very cold. Her toughness comes from an obscured, but obviously troubled past that keeps anybody from getting close enough to know her. Her actions do all the talking. Mikael, on the other hand, is a warm and ingratiating man. His professionalism is apparent, but he easily befriends everyone meets in the Vanger clan. He never seems like an interloper there to dig into their family's past, though that's exactly what he is. Lisbeth and Mikael's combined skills make for a formidable investigative duo, he with his years of journalistic experience and she with her photographic memory, they have an inherent trust in each other that allows them to make guesses and take chances in search of the truth.
The Vanger family, at first, are cooperative with their questioning, but as they continue to dig, danger starts to mount. Harriet's Uncle Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube, Puppet on a Chain) is certain that somebody in the family killed her, a notion that becomes increasingly likely as information surfaces. Using diaries, news reports, and photographs (owing a clear debt to Michelangelo Antonioni Ã ¬ Blow-Up), they piece together Harriet's final days. They also discover something else, something much more sinister. It seems that Harriet, in the weeks before her disappearance, became obsessed with a number of unsolved murders that took place all across Sweden beginning in the 1940s. Did she see a connection? What can Mikael and Lisbeth glean from this? When they can sort out the pattern, everything else will fall into place.
No matter how many thrillers I see, a well done moment of revelation is always a beautiful thing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has several such moments, each delivered as brilliantly as the last. They start as seemingly far-reaching ideas, but when revealed, become the only thing that could possibly make sense. There wasn't a single time that I could guess how it would shake out, and it's so much more satisfying for it. This is certainly due in part to Steig Larsson's original story, but it's also a testament to the director's ability to conceal the truth and his judiciousness in revealing the right amount of information at just the right time. The conclusion is unexpected, shockingly emotional for the genre, and very satisfying.
Niels Arden Oplev deserves plenty of applause, but his efforts would have been for naught without the standout performances of the two leads and a solid supporting cast. Each character is believable, not just because they're well written, but because the performers throw their all into their roles. Nyqvist carries most of the screen time and does extremely well, but Rapace's performance is iconic. The original title of the film is more apt to the plot, but the character is so powerful that the change makes a lot of sense, as well. She is a steely beauty who is extremely appealing. The performance is cold, but exactly where it needs to be to describe both the horrors the woman has seen and the resolve necessary to withstand the grisly sights forced upon her.
Music Box sent a screener disc for review, so the final product will likely be better than this but, overall, the disc performs very well. The anamorphic image looks good, with nice colors and fairly deep blacks. A little grain mars the overall effect, but it isn't too noticeable. The sound suffers a little. Here, we have a stereo mix, but I'll be surprised if that isn't upgraded to surround by the release. There are no extras here; it would be a crime if none were included on the final product.
The sexual violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is graphic, brutal, and certainly not for the faint of heart. It's absolutely necessary to the plot, but the film delves into extremities that are not often seen. Some will find it quite objectionable, so fair warning, watch it with someone you trust.
If the following two films in this series can match the power of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I'll be pretty impressed. An exciting and intelligent mystery; this is one of the strongest, most consistent, and most emotionally satisfying thrillers to be released in quite some time.
Not guilty. Skål!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Swedish)
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Website
* Cinema Verdict Review