Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.22.10


Violence, Hatred and Clichés
Popular thriller adaptation doesn’t thrill
by Molly Templeton

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: Directed  by Niels Arden Oplev. Script by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Cinematography, Eric Kress. Editors, Anne Østerud and Jannus Billeskov Jansen. Music, Jacob Groth. Music Box Films, 2010. 152 minutes. R.  

Noomi Rapace in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

“It’s instructive,” a friend reminded me after I asked if he’d seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, “that the original Swedish title translates to Men Who Hate Women.” Instructive might be too light a word. The adaptation of Dragon Tattoo, based on the late Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller, takes the original title to heart, foregrounding violence and hatred but engaging with the cause and consequence of each in bluntly uncurious fashion. The result is moderately effective as a standard, cliché-littered thriller — one elevated, in spots, by the cool beauty of the Swedish landscape, and by the tense performance of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl.

Lisbeth is a young hacker, or a “researcher,” as her employers politely call her, called on before the film begins to dig into the life of a journalist recently convicted of libel. That journalist, Mikael “Kalle” Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist; the never-explained nickname is a reference to a children’s book by Astrid Lindgren), is a weary, perpetually exhausted-looking fellow with a deeply underwritten character. What drives Mikael, what gives him the tenacity and the courage to  take on capitalist titans and face jail time (though Swedish jail, in this film, appears to resemble a small but comfortable dorm room), is unexplored. The film would rather focus on what it think drives Lisbeth, a ferociously sullen, whip-thin woman dressed all in spiky black, rings glittering in her nose and ears. But her character is just a piece of reductive reasoning: Bad things happened to Lisbeth — and keep happening, in grotesque, gratuitous detail — to Lisbeth, and that’s why she is the way she is. 

Pop psychology isn’t much on which to build a character, but Rapace raises the stakes; her sharp, carefully controlled face is forcefully readable, and her body language is precise, catlike, defensive and impenetrable. As the movie meanders on (it’s an hour before Mikael and Lisbeth meet) and Lisbeth begins to warm to Mikael, her heavy black eyeliner fades, revealing a face much softer and more vulnerable than it first appears. It’s a shortcut, a way to illustrate how little Lisbeth actually reveals about herself, but it’s surprisingly effective. 

Dragon Tattoo’s central mystery begins when Mikael, his sentence conveniently delayed, is hired by an old businessman, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to look into his young, pretty niece’s disappearance, though it happened 40 years ago. Lisbeth, still electronically snooping in Mikael’s laptop, remotely figures out a key piece of the puzzle, and when she sends the info to Mikael, she lets herself be found. Making the most of her less-ethical research skills, the pair work together to untangle a nasty knot of family secrets, in the process experiencing a generous handful of movie clichés: Breaking Into Creepy Houses After Dark, the James Bond Villain Explication, the Impossible Last Minute Rescue and the Mysterious Happening That Sets Up Film Two all make cameos. 

Dragon Tattoo is dotted with moments that indicate it could have been a better film, were it less excited about its violent, Nazi-connected, misogynist secrets. Oplev deals smartly with the way people interact with and handle information, neatly managing the unlikely task of making research interesting. Whether Lisbeth is hunched over her laptop or Mikael is lining up negatives, Oplev keeps us in close, engrossed, trying to get one step ahead, to see the vital thing first. But he also lingers excessively on the humiliations of his leads, whether it’s Mikael’s fall from grace or Lisbeth’s brutal rape, at the expense of character and the patience of his audience.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo opens Friday, April 23, at the Bijou.