I have a new hero, and her name is Lizbeth Salander. She is smarter than most men give her credit for; tougher than her dark and heavily pierced exterior would ever lead you to believe; she is damaged, but she fights back. And she knows how to bring the most evil of men (and the most good) to their knees. She is the lead character in the taut, smart, exciting new Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of the best suspense films I’ve seen in years.
Based on a novel of the same name (which I haven’t read) and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the films stars Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist about to go to prison for three months for allegedly spreading libel about a rich businessman. Salander is hired to find out if Blomkvist is good at his job and trustworthy. It turns out he is, and was likely set up, and so in the weeks before his prison term he is hired by another rich businessman to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance, and possible murder of his niece. Salander continues to keep her eye on Blomkvist, hacking into his computer until he finds her, and hires her to help him solve the murder.
At two and a half hours, one of the great strengths of the film is that it is almost entirely focused on the murder itself. The first twenty minutes get as much exposition and explanation out of the way (perhaps a bit too quickly), and we’re off to the murder/disappearance. As Blomkvist pours over old papers, photographs, and family ties that make the Corleones look like the Brady Bunch. He finds a history of misogyny, anti-semitism and horrific abuse. But what happened forty years ago still happens today to Salander. The cold climate makes men hard-hearted, it seems. Blomkvist’s initiation into this strange tale is mirrored by Salander’s struggle to find her independence in a world which still sees her as a woman in the most derogatory way, no matter her piercings and tattoos. But the dragon is on her back, unseen by male eyes, and it holds her up, allowing her to do what all women wish they had the guts to do when confronted with the most base sadism and have a chance to get their own back.
As soon as Blomkvist starts investigating, the film takes off into the darkest places of the human heart. While none of the discoveries are necessarily surprising, the plethora of American forensic television shows could take a few tips on what actually makes a mystery interesting: what makes people do the things they do, not the typical CSI bug on the windshield of a possible killer’s car. The film’s almost constant tight focus on the mystery kept my palms sweating and my mind racing to try to interpert the clues myself. Oplev thankfully used traditional celluloid; the rich colours and shades would have been lost in digital. Unfortunately, the film is so taut, that the last ten minutes feel rather deflated as the story is wrapped up.
The film has been at the back of my mind since I saw it a few days ago, nagging at me to try to interpret it. Blomkvist is a journalist used to going after big fish, those who threaten the political and economic state of his nation. So is Salander, hacking into computers to get information no one else can find and bring down the most corrupt. So why put them at the centre of a family mystery? Perhaps because it is these stories that are harder to swallow; we all are ready to believe that capitalists are corrupt and stealing our money, but no one wants to know about abuse. Sweden has an unfortunate past of Nazi sympathy and collaboration which is explored in this film; a past that perhaps it has neglected to come to terms with.
Oplev controls the camera well, finding a nice balance between close-ups and panoramic scenes, knowing when the audience needs to see the whole and when they need to see the depths of someone’s eyes. But the strength of the film comes from Noomi Rapace and her portrayal of Salander. She doesn’t hold back and neither does Salander; she knows her incredible mind, but perhaps not her heart. She is dark and brooding and cold as the Swedish winter and knows when the bad guy just needs to get fucked up. That’s my kind of hero.