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“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the first of the trilogy of filmed adaptations of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Lisbeth Salander” mysteries, while a hit overseas since its February 2009 premiere, has had only limited USrelease. That’s too bad, because pic helmed by Niels Arden Oplev, is a tightly wrought thriller that belies its 152 minutes. It must be the subtitles. American auds tend to disdain them, and “Girl” is in Swedish. Columbia Pictures is said to be working on an English-language version. If it is half as good as the original, it should be a hit.
Plot runs on two tracks, in parallel at first, and then intersecting at pic’s midpoint. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a reporter, is found guilty of libeling a Swedish capitalist, ordered to pay damages and serve three months in jail. (Swedish jails, according to pic, are a tad like budget hotels where one checks out at the pleasure of management.) On a six-month hiatus before serving his sentence, he is investigated by a security company reporting to yet another capitalist, 82-year-old Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the nominal head of an unpleasant family. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a pierced, tattooed 20-something expert computer hacker who is a tad short on social skills, is the investigator. According to her report, Blomkvist was set up. This is sufficient for Vanger, who summons him to the family’s island, a train ride from Stockholm, to investigate the 1966 disappearance and presumed murder of his beloved niece, Harriet (Ewa Fröling), a case that has obsessed him for 40 plus years. There is a connection. Blomkvist’s dad worked for Vanger, and Mikael spent summers at the island as a lad. The missing Harriet, aged 16, was his babysitter. With nothing better to do, Blomkvist takes the job.
Meanwhile Lisbeth has become obsessed with Blomkvist. She continues to track his every move by hacking into his laptop. At pic’s midpoint, she sends him a cryptic email explaining the case’s most significant clue, an email that Blomkvist quickly traces to her, and the pair finally meet. He recruits her, and thus begins pic’s buddy-film aspect.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” owes a lot to “The Thin Man,” “Law & Order” spinoffs “SVU” and “Criminal Intent,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “The Parallax View.” Photos tacked to walls (“L&O”) abound. The guy-girl amateur detective thing is Nick and Nora Charles two generations later with a mega dark side. The aftermath of the boys’ attack on Elisabeth Shue in “Leaving Las Vegas” is repeated here, and the surveillance photos mimic “The Parallax View.” “Murder on the Orient Express” is recalled by everyone in the Vanger clan being suspect in Harriet’s murder. Only steal from the best.
Pic’s dark side, where most of its time is spent, is set up by scenes between Lisbeth and her legal guardian, The Lawyer Nils Bjurman, played by Peter Andersson with chilling effectiveness. For a reason not revealed until close to the final reel, Lisbeth requires a guardian who reports on her to the authorities. Bjurman, however, is a predator, and for another reason not revealed until near pic’s end, Lisbeth has a major problem with predators. She gets even. This is where your critic understood why a murder mystery got an “R” rating from the MPAA. The investigation leads the pair into a world of sadism that Lisbeth knows all too well. It’s the camera angles (thanks to shooters Jens Fischer and Eric Kress) that save it from getting an “X.”
As revelations unfold it seems that Vanger’s three brothers, two of whom are dead, were Nazis. The survivor even keeps a citation “in the name of the Fuehrer” at home. Before long the pair or on the trail of a serial killer, they think. It turns out to be a father-son rapist/serial killer team, the father of which is dead and the son, Vanger’s nephew Martin (Peter Haber), is not only still alive, but still doing dad’s work. Again, Lisbeth uncovers the key clues. She is also pic’s tough guy. Therein lies another issue.
Some in the gay/lesbian community may have a problem with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” It’s this: Lisbeth is clearly living as a lesbian until she and Blomkvist are cooped up in the same cabin. She comes on to him — or more accurately — she has him one night. A strange, tentative love affair develops between the pair. Pic almost dares auds to ask if her gayness isn’t a response to the violence of men against women that has so scarred her psyche. It is worth noting that pic’s Italian title is “Uomini che odiano le donne” (Men who Hate Women), which is exactly what our detective pair stumble on while trying to solve Harriet’s mystery — a series of murders of women going back to 1949, and the key to Harriet’s disappearance is that she was on to it.
Here is where pic ventures onto treacherous ground. Just before the final reel, the serial killings are solved, some bad guys are dead, and Oplev could have yelled, “Cut and print!” Instead he goes on for another reel. This is almost always a mistake. The Adam Sandler vehicle “Grown Ups” is one example. In this case, however, it isn’t. There’s one mystery that has not yet been solved. Who killed Harriet? Oplev uses the final reel to solve that one and to introduce a little more exposition — a scene between Lisbeth and her mother in hospital and a flashback to Lisbeth setting her dad on fire for abusing her mom explain why she has a problem with men and relationships. A few other plot twists, again courtesy of Lisbeth, lead to an ending that says but does not scream, “sequel.” In this case it is a welcome statement.
Despite an appropriately lugubrious score (Jacob Groth), pic excels in creating suspense. No element weighs it down. Two and one half hours feel like one. Very little is predictable, and even to a seasoned fan of detective fiction it is not possible until Oplev reveals it to figure out who the bad guys are. Pic abounds with moral ambiguity, which is what separates it in time from “The Thin Man” series. This is no Nick and Nora Charles romp through Manhattan. There is little comic relief, but what there is is perfectly timed.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has just been released on DVD. Get it. Just don’t let the kids watch.
[nggallery id=13]The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix