Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Lisbeth/Computer Hybrid Edit

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become somewhat of a phenomenon. The novel, the first in the Millenium trilogy from late author Stieg Larsson, concerns the exploits of Lisbeth Sanders, an unbalanced computer hacker. After being raped by her legal custodian, she takes full control of her life and forces herself into a mystery case being helmed by disgraced reporter Mikael Bloomvist. The novel has become an international best seller and will see its second film adaptation brought to life by director David Fincher in 2011.

The original set of films, produced in Larsson's home country Sweden, has also done very well. The trilogy has been sold to twenty five different countries and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally so far.

For fans of the book, I may seem to have described a small fraction of the plot. This is intentional. If there is a flaw in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo film, it is that Mikael Bloomvist does not come alive as a character. All his introductory scenes--the trial, the exile from Millenium, and his initial investigation into the Vanger family--fall flat. It is not until his life collides with Lisbeth's that the film takes off. By that time, people unfamiliar with the book might lose interest. Rest assured that all the slow-crawling exposition of who did what in the Vanger Group is there; it's just not particularly compelling on the screen.

The strength of the film lies in Noomi Rapace's performance as the titular character. She is ferocious and fearless. You never know what this slight little gothic/punk girl is going to do next, but you never doubt her ability to do it. Whether she's defending herself in a subway attack or hacking into remote computers for pay and pleasure, Rapace's performance feels real. There is something so immensely expressive in her face. Her character may be a creature of impulse, but Rapace makes those impulses seem authentic. She is wild and unpredictable. Her physical demeanor suggests a hard-lived life for a woman so young. Most impressive of all is how effortlessly she accesses the most physically and emotionally draining moments of the character. The rape sequences are graphic and tragic, and the revenge sequences even more so. Simply put, I cannot think of another working actress who could have performed all the elements of this character so well.

Where Rapace's performance fails, the wonderful editing by Anne Osterod succeeds. The problem with adapting a book like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is how much of the action is driven by research. Lisbeth and Mikael are constantly digging through libraries and archives to stare at tiny photos, old receipts, business books, and newspapers. It's not content that screams cinematic treatment. The only thing more boring than watching a writer onscreen is watching someone read onscreen. Osterod's editing uses a lot of cross-cuts, fades, and overlays to engage the viewer in the research. Lisbeth will be digging through a pile of receipts in the library, bringing out stack after stack of folders and boxes to examine. The various papers float transparently over her face as she scans them for anything she can use. This is cross-cut with Mikael investigating a house on the remote island setting of the mystery. Osterod jumps back and forth, creating natural beats that rarely drag when Lisbeth and Mikael are following a lead in the case. True, such techniques have become the bread and butter of TV crime shows, but that doesn't make them any less valuable for a film when done well.

For fans of the novel, the film is a must see. It is an almost-perfect realization of the book. For those who didn't like the book or haven't read it, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is a solid mystery. It takes a little too long to really get going, but once it does, it's an enjoyable diversion.

Rating: 6/10

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