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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson’s mystery novel adapted for the big screen

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The sound of the packing envelope being cut open is as loud and jarring as the breaking of bones. In the opening scene of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an aging corporate baron, Henrik Vanger, tremblingly opens the package in the lonely elegance of his study. He can guess the contents, but cries softly anyway when he opens it to find a carefully framed and matted bluebell, much like the ones he has received by mail on his birthday from an anonymous sender every year for decades. They remind him of the bluebells his favorite niece, Harriet, presented to him before she vanished from the Vangers’ island compound many years ago.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev from a best-selling mystery novel by his countryman, Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a subtitled thriller with an anxiety about the tyranny of the powerful, especially of men over women. Although the film clocks in at more than two and a half hours, it never drags or feels long or overstuffed. The mystery at the heart of the plot seems a bit convoluted in the end, but the ride is swift and well upholstered, shocking scenes of sexual cruelty and all.

Although the protagonist seems to be Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish Bob Woodward framed in a libel case by a corrupt industrialist and facing a short term in Sweden’s Motel 6-like prison system, the real star is the eponymous tattooed girl. Lisbeth is a severe Goth with jet-black hair and multiple piercings, a 21st-century Irma Vep on a motorcycle. When old Henrik Vanger hires Blomkvist to investigate the 1960s-era disappearance of Harriet, Lisbeth becomes the reporter’s shadow, hacking into his work files and avidly following his leads. Finally, they make contact and become partners in unlocking a mystery hidden in the deep closet of a family with many secrets.

Blomkvist’s story is straightforward enough—a successful middle-aged media figure with a divorce behind him. Lisbeth, however, is an enigma gradually unpeeled—a 24-year old private investigator with a criminal record. When her new probation officer, who has legal guardianship over her finances, forces her to exchange degrading sex acts for access to her own money, she becomes the avenging fury in black. In the age of mini-cameras, anything can be recorded and circulated.

Her interest in Blomkvist’s investigation is tied to her own pattern of abuse at the hands of men with squalid values. Harriet might have been raped and murdered by someone in her own family. So believes Henrik, apparently the only honorable member of a family that supported Sweden’s tiny Nazi Party in the 1930s. The Vangers are, he confesses, a greedy, worthless clan of the small-minded and power-mad. Naturally, someone is determined to thwart reopening Harriet’s case by any means.

Filmed in the melancholy shades of a pale Swedish twilight, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a suspenseful murder-mystery in territory similar to Kenneth Branagh’s television mini-series “Wallander,” based on the detective novels by Sweden’s Henning Mankell. It’s a story of men whose lust for power knows no moral limits and an argument on the nature of evil. Blomkvist, the aging liberal, thinks evil behavior results from bad nurturing. The streetwise Lisbeth believes it’s a choice made freely.