The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010) Review

(2.5 STARS)

It’s not hard to understand why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is such a literary phenomenon. It’s also easy to see why it’s first big screen translation doesn’t work. The film runs nearly 150 minutes, yet it feels like a lot of important material is left on the cutting room floor. The film plays like a series of vignettes of a potentially compelling mystery, and without strong transitions, a lengthy expository scene is required to fill in the cracks (this type of scene is a major pet peeve of mine). It’s not a total bust, however, as Lisbeth Salander proves to be as compelling on screen as she is on the page. But compelling characters can only carry a film so far, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s missteps outweigh its successes a little too much to be worthy of a recommendation.

Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) has just been sentenced to serve six months in prison after losing a libel case against a wealthy industrialist. He has some time before he serves his sentence, however, so he is hired by another wealthy man, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who wants him to find out who has been sending him pressed flowers from all over the world for the past forty years, for he suspects this person to have killed his favorite niece, Harriet. Their paths eventually collide with Salander (Noomi Rapace), a no-nonsense computer hacker who doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially her sadistic parole officer who likes to blackmail her into performing sexual favors on him.

Once these characters’ lives converge, the film goes downhill fast. Lisbeth is a fascinating character to watch, and her situation with the despicable parole officer is simultaneously brutal and entertaining. Unfortunately, Mikael and Henrik’s story never gets off the ground and even the addition of a character like Lisbeth isn’t enough to engage you. In fact, much of what we love about Lisbeth is muted by this storyline—at least until the end.

The problem with this storyline, however, isn’t that it’s uninteresting. Having read the book, I can say that the mystery/investigation elements are quite well-developed by author Stieg Larsson. The film version is awkwardly assembled, and it loses a lot as a result. Many scenes transition with a fading still photograph of something pertaining to the investigation, as if to consistently remind us who is involved in this mystery. And these scenes occasionally make jumps in logic. This makes the characters’ motivations and relationships to one another unclear at times. Even though I knew what was going to happen, director Niels Arden Oplev’s storytelling style confused me. Couple that with the obnoxiously intrusive score, and I can say I found this film quite aggravating at times.

The acting, like the film as a whole, as mixed at best. The only thing that saves it from being another major problem is Noomi Rapace. In fact, she’s the only thing keeping the film from being a complete waste of time. Her interpretation of Lisbeth is supremely intriguing and entertaining. She’s as strong a woman as any in recent memory, and while she’s got some demons from her past that haunt her, she never lets any of the other characters in. Those other characters, however, aren’t nearly as interesting as she is, and the performances suffer as a result (or maybe the characters aren’t interesting because the performances are weak). Michael Nykvist is a very ho-hum leading man. He rarely gets excited, and he does nothing to excite us. And Sven Bertil-Taube’s character has little more to do than explain the backstory to Blomkvist.

The film reminded me a little of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in the sense that it works as a character study but not so much as a thriller. Werner Herzog’s film works more because its focus is much more on character. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is story, story, story, and that story just didn’t translate well for me. Perhaps David Fincher will be able to do something more with this story (I sure hope Daniel Craig will be able to bring more to the role of Blomkvist than Michael Nykvist). If any director can do it, it might be him. But after seeing this seriously problematic adaptation of the best-selling novel, I’d say he’s got his work cut out for him.

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