Friday, April 16, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Fiery thriller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010) • View trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but comparable to an R for violence, nudity, profanity, rape and strong sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.16.10
Buy DVD: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo • Buy Blu-Ray: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [Blu-ray]

The late Stieg Larsson's U.S. fans have been salivating over the prospect of seeing his debut novel on the big screen, ever since the American translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hit our shores in September 2008.

The wait has been worthwhile. Director Niels Arden Oplev has delivered a taut, intelligent and thoroughly absorbing adaptation of Larsson's intriguing and quite nasty thriller. Kudos, as well, go to screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, who've done a masterful job of transforming Larsson's dense novel (480 pages!) into a 152-minute film that never, ever flags.
After realizing that their quarters have been searched in their absence -- thanks
to the perfect recall she has for the location of every object in the room --
Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) drags Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) outside, where they
discover the tell-tale scratches of forced entry. Perversely, Lisbeth regards this
as good news: The bad guys are getting nervous...

Although the literary world has given us a wealth of gripping thrillers and mystery novels during the past several decades, the genre has been woefully under-represented on American movie screens ... that is to say, in a manner that does justice to the original books. Hollywood adaptations of such stories are invariably superficial and additionally compromised by the reflexive need for the high-power wattage of movie stars, and their presence always wrecks the gritty integrity of the source novel.

We've had to rely on foreign filmmakers for adaptations that are true to the atmosphere of the written word. Roman Polanski's current handling of Robert Harris' The Ghost Writer is a marvelous drama: grim fiction by way of familiar real-world newspaper headlines. And I still have very fond memories of French director/scripter Guillaume Canet's sensational 2006 adaptation of Harlan Coben's Tell No One, without question one of the best mystery thrillers ever brought to the big screen.

Even French director Bernard Tavernier's 2009 interpretation of James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead  shortened to In the Electric Mist when filmed  is an intriguing effort, despite its flaws. How can one not appreciate the perfect casting of Tommy Lee Jones as Burke's world-weary Dave Robicheaux?

To this list we must add Oplev's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, highlighted by another example of perfect casting: Noomi Rapace's utterly mesmerizing performance as the damaged and deliciously complex title character, Lisbeth Salander.

You won't quickly forget her. Which is as it should be.

Initially, though, we meet dedicated investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), as he suffers through the final stages of a high-profile libel case that results in professional disgrace, a stiff fine and a brief jail sentence. We quickly realize  because Mikael's face shows his exasperation  that he has been set up; the well-connected corporate bad guy has been "vindicated" in a very public manner, and is free to continue his ruthless behavior.

One loss for the good guys.

Mikael, with several months to occupy before surrendering himself to prison, is contacted by a lawyer representing Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the 82-year-old former CEO of a huge corporation owned by a wealthy and completely dysfunctional family. Henrik has long been obsessed by the decades-old disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet, when she was 16 years old.

The old man wants a dogged reporter to take one last look at the case, and through his attorney hires a security firm to thoroughly investigate Mikael, before recommending him for the assignment. The clandestinely invasive  and thoroughly illegal  character profile is handled by the firm's best hacker: the 24-year-old Lisbeth.

She's an anomaly in such a professional setting, with her multiple piercings, elaborate tattoos, dark clothing and black hair, frequently combed to cover one eye. She hasn't much use for social niceties  or other people in general  and has the wary suspicion of somebody who has been badly abused.

But her work is impeccable. Mikael, not having the faintest idea of how he secured this intriguing assignment, tackles this mystery while based in an outbuilding that's part of the remote compound owned by the surviving members of the Vanger family. We meet them in fits and starts; some are sympathetic to the cause, while others regard Mikael's presence as invasive.

Oplev cross-cuts during this first act, alternately spending time with Mikael and Lisbeth. The latter has her own problems: a new "probation officer"  why she needs one is left unrevealed for a time  who takes a thoroughly unhealthy interest in his new client. She may be unusual, but she's still cute in her own way; more to the point, she's helpless, because this old letch has the power to have her institutionalized.

Wait ... helpless?

Not likely.

But we  and Lisbeth  endure a lot of very ugly trauma before she solves the problem in her own inimitable fashion.

At the same time, and without Mikael's knowledge, Lisbeth has continued to spy on his activities via a live "hack feed" into his computer; she thus becomes equally absorbed in the missing-persons case involving Harriet Vanger. And when Lisbeth perceives the solution to one possible clue that has eluded Mikael, she can't help sending an e-mail and nudging him in the right direction.

This is a marvelous moment: one of Rapace's many great scenes. She's like a little kid, desperate to show off what she knows, but vexed by the fear that blowing her cover might not be wise. The pause is interminable; we in the theater audience lean forward, nodding, hoping somehow to persuade her to yes, definitely, take the chance.

It's superb directorial manipulation on Oplev's part, worthy of Hitchcock.

And once Mikael learns of his clandestine "assistant," matters take an intriguing turn. Or three.

Pure research doesn't necessarily lend itself to depiction in a movie, but the core mystery here has a visual component that actually plays better onscreen than it would have on the printed page. Additionally, those concerned by the need to read subtitles can relax; Oplev and his screenwriters convey a lot of story with a minimum of dialogue in most scenes. We fill in the necessary details because of our understanding of basic human behavior ... good and depraved.

Nyqvist looks and acts every inch the dogged investigative reporter, gratefully clutching at this unexpected opportunity to do the work he loves best. He's also a good man who has a practiced researcher's understanding of  and appreciation for  patience: whether seeking a nugget of information or calmly waiting for somebody to relax in his presence.

Nyqvist's expressions are spot-on: He'll glance at a companion with the slightly amused compassion we extend toward a new cat or dog looking to become a member of the family.

Whenever Rapace is on screen, though, everybody else fades away. Her Lisbeth is much too flawed to be a conventional heroine, and yet there's no denying the degree to which we care about her. I can't recall that Rapace smiles once during this entire film, and I'm not sure I'd want to see Lisbeth smile; it'd likely be the last thing one ever saw.

The core story is both clever and twisty, as one would expect from the seasoned journalist that Larsson had become. At the time of his death in 2004, he was one of the world's leading experts in anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations: a subject that easily lent itself to his novels.

How sad that Larsson didn't live long enough to enjoy the explosive fame generated first by his books, and subsequently by their film adaptations.

How sad as well, for entirely different reasons, that Hollywood already is talking up an English-language remake of this film (which is just fine the way it is, thank you very much). Absent the poisonous, dirt-under-the-fingernails atmosphere that so smoothly characterizes Oplev's handling of these malignant proceedings, it'll be just another inappropriately "cleaned up" American remake with some far too familiar femme playing Lisbeth.

Consider, as an apt example, how 1993's Point of No Return was a pale shadow of 1991's La Femme Nikita, mostly because Anne Parillaud was so much more believably nasty and street-smart than the far-too-pretty Bridget Fonda.

Rapace and Nyqvist already have starred in the second and third Swedish installments of Larsson's trilogy  The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest  which are scheduled to migrate to these shores later this year.

They can't arrive quickly enough, as far as I'm concerned.

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