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Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)

There’s something not right about Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and it has nothing to do with her appearance. The piercings, the dirty, dilapidated clothing and the tattoos are anti-establishment, but they aren’t revolutionary. It’s Lisbeth’s eyes that say more. They flash hatred and mistrust and wariness. The “I’m a snarling disaffected loner” attitude isn’t fresh off the truck, either. Look beyond all that hostility, though, and her eyes give voice to a jagged rift between the world in her head and the world outside of it. After a few minutes, her expression makes sense. It’s confusion. She doesn’t understand people, and she doesn’t understand why they expect her to behave as they do. She’s a foreigner in a country where she doesn’t know the customs.

Thus, Lisbeth Salander may be the most compelling heroine ever created who might have an autism spectrum disorder. No one in Stieg Larsson’s novel or in Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation offers any medical explanation for the 24-year-old orphaned hacker’s odd, antisocial behavior. They tend to think of Lisbeth as disturbed, or emotionally traumatized (if they’re kind), or standoffish, or just plain difficult. It’s easier to write her off in such ways; besides that, she makes no effort to explain her motivations to anyone. She’s content to live in her own head, making her unknowable on a level most protagonists aren’t. Rapace’s no-holds-barred work ensures that Lisbeth is captivating rather than merely abrasive; at times, the actress achieves a level of intensity that is frightening. The rest of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” doesn’t quite measure up — there’s tension, violence, but subtlety’s in short supply — but has enough strong performances and twists to keep us intrigued.

Playing second fiddle to Rapace is Michael Nyqvist, whose journalist Mikael Blomkvist is staring down the barrel of a three-month prison sentence after losing a libel case against an industrialist. Nyqvist’s calm energy offers a nice balance to Rapace’s unchecked fierceness, although he has a touch of the same focus in him that makes his partner such a phenomenal hacker. Before he begins his sentence, Mikael takes another case: Industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) wants the reporter to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece Harriet, who worked as Mikael’s nanny during his childhood. Henrik hints at the skeleton’s in his family’s closet but is more blunt about what he thinks happened to Harriet: a family member murdered the teen-aged girl. The Vanger clan, Henrik, reports, is a nasty lot with secrets the members mean to keep at all costs. In his digging Mikael crosses paths with Lisbeth, hired by Henrik’s lawyer to investigate him. Rather, Lisbeth contacts him almost tauntingly, providing her answer to a clue Mikael can’t figure out. The two forge a ginger, fruitful partnership that succeeds because of their opposite personalities: Mikael understands how to read/manipulate people’s emotions, while Lisbeth does the same with data. The truths they unearth are shocking enough to suggest the Vanger family has more in common with the Manson family than anyone else.

Oplev elects to intermingle these dark revelations with Lisbeth’s struggle to ignore her past (shown in unsubtle flashbacks) and understand what Mikael expects of her. Brutality aside, it’s this struggle that proves to be what hooks us in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s got demons to spare, and her wrath toward men who hate women — the original Swedish title for Larsson’s book — knows no limits. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes is not her unthinkable abuse at the hands of her appointed guardian (a blood-freezing Peter Andersson), but her sadistically creative revenge. Rapace’s blistering scorn and towering rage are beyond disturbing. They’ll haunt you. So will other characters, like Martin Vanger, played masterfully with quiver-worthy menace by Peter Haber. Nyqvist is subdued, almost dull, but that’s a necessity. He’s not a burly action hero but an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story. He’s the tether keeping Oplev’s film from becoming a too-obvious celebration of grimness and death. Rapace has a different arc. She’s the embodiment of what John Milton meant when he wrote “I myself am hell.” Only her fury is every bit as sad as it is ruinous. 

Grade: A-

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20 Responses

  1. I saw this film recently. I liked the film. I didn’t love it. I guess, the brutual nature of it and the violence turned me off.

    I thought that the story was too drawn out in the beginning. At the halfway mark, I got into it.

  2. […] Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009) « M. Carter @ the … […]

  3. To answer your question about Salander’s disorder , I read in the first Larsson novel that she has asperger, a kind of autism.

    I’ve been reading in the news about a British guy (Gary McKinnon ) with this handicap accused of hacking into US gov , funny how reality mirrors fiction!

    I agree the twists are good, but I didn’t much like Larsson’s characters, the violence also turned me off, so I won’t be reading /watching part 2 and 3.
    If you’re interested in a more warm-hearted film about asperger, try: Adam (2009)

  4. I liked it too but felt like it had so much more potential… looking forward to Fincher’s take. BTW, did you notice Lisbeth’s armpit hair… am I the only one? It bugged the hell outta me!

    • Kai, I heard you talking about this on the LAMBcast. I don’t notice the armpit hair. Besides, Lisbeth was more goth lesbian feminist. I would be surprised if they was in there.

  5. I agree with @moviesandsongs – Adam is a terrific movie.

    Great review of this! I’ve only watched the first hour and was so turned off by the violence I didn’t think I could finish it, but the way you described what I’d already seen, I almost trust I can watch the rest – with the fast forward button close at hand.

    • @ Branden – But Lisbeth’s revenge scene? Every woman who’s ever suffered violence from men cheered at that one. He got what was coming to him, and then some. I thought the violence handled well.

      @ Jess – The violence is so key to Lisbeth’s character, though.

      • Oh, yeah. I was fine with the revenge scene, but why did she come back for more before that? Was she secretly masochistic? She didn’t have to have go back to the guardian.

  6. @Kai As you said, you notice the craziest shit.

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  8. I enjoyed Dragon Tattoo quite a bit. I certainly was shocked at the amount of violence and somewhat vicious graphic displays (by US standards) but in all, this was a very good crime/whodunit movie and certainly the best film of its genre in quite some time. The best thing about it certainly is that our main characters are just as intriguing and mysterious as the crime they are trying to solve.

  9. I agree that Lisbeth is a compelling protagonist, however I didn’t find Nyqvist interesting in the least.

    Otherwise, it’s a really strong, unusually character driven, thriller.

  10. It’ll be interesting to see how “Hollywood” the adaptation is, though…

    • @ Castor — Even I was shocked at the revenge scene. I guess Quentin Tarantino hasn’t desensitized me as much as I thought. I think you’re right about the characters, and Roger Ebert took it farther. He said Lisbeth Salander was far MORE interesting than the movie she was in (even though he liked the movie’s plot very much).

      @ James — I wonder if that’s the point of Mikael, him being kind of dull. I kind of like that because it’s such a switch from the action standard where the guy does all the shooting and rescues the girl. Here, it’s the female who’s far more tough and proactive.

      @ Darren — I have deep reservations about the Hollywood remake. Daniel Craig I like, even though I don’t think he’s the perfect choice for Mikael, and I have no idea who could play Lisbeth better than Noomi Rapace. It would have to be an actress with A LOT of attitude.

  11. I’d have to put Lisbeth a top a list of great “reluctant” protagonists which is, I believe different from an anti-hero.Either way the distinction she makes as a loner is one I don’t believe I’ve seen before and she stands out as being unique. Unflinching, stone cold but still vastly interesting and unique.

    You said it best with, “The rest of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” doesn’t quite measure up — there’s tension, violence, but subtlety’s in short supply — but has enough strong performances and twists to keep us intrigued.”

    This is one I’ve thought about for days after seeing it, I too liked it quite a bit.

  12. This movie currently sits number three on my year to date list. The interesting thing is now much the violence is toned down from the novel.

  13. Well, judging from this review and comments here, suffice to say I don’t think I’ll be able to see this. If it were more suspenseful but less graphic, in-your-face violence, I might give it a shot as the plot is intriguing, but no, I need my restful sleep thank you very much. This one will surely haunt me like The Exorcist did!

  14. Such a thorough review here. Great job.I have not read the books, but I think that this is the best film of 2010 so far (by miles) — though was disappointed in the 2nd installment (just posted a review on Magic Lantern). Rapace better get an Oscar nom for her work here – she is brilliant.

  15. For those of you who have seen the films is Craig a good choice as the second lead?

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