Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor, which directly translates as Men Who Hate Women. Though that sounds like a terrible Lifetime Cable TV movie, both titles actually describe the work well. The American one seems to echo those of the Italian "giallo" films made in the '60s and the '70s. Films whose florid labels such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, and Black Belly of the Tarantula gave an arty dimension to what were basically paperback thrillers. Which is what Dragon Tattoo is, at least on the surface. All the technical mumbo-jumbo of computer hacking aside, its nasty and effective plot machinery harkens back to the works of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr by basically reworking elements of the old "locked-room mystery" along with the even older gothic tradition of the "shocking family secret." In this respect, the new title is apropos.
The film version by director Niels Arden Oplev is a faithful adaptation of the novel...perhaps too faithful to work completely as cinema, but well-produced nonetheless. It is the story of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who is sentenced to a short prison term after being framed for libel. Free for a short period of time before having to serve that sentence, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the aged former CEO of the Vanger Corporation and patriarch of the powerful, yet very dysfunctional, Vanger family. Henrik wants him to look into the disappearance and, he believes, murder, of his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, some 40 years earlier. Harriet was just 16 years old when she disappeared during a road-tanker crash that closed off the only bridge that connected their Island home to the mainland. He believes that, since she could not get off the island during the hours she was unaccounted for, she must never have left.
The tired and broken Blomkvist stays in a small house on the grounds of the Vanger estate and is soon drawn into what a paperback thriller would call "a web of lies and secrets." But this is where Larsson leaves the world of the paperback thriller behind. Blomkvist cannot seem to make any headway on the case when he is suddenly contacted by the very mysterious title character. Lisabeth Salander is a brilliant but antisocial computer hacker who has been hacking Blomkvist, initially for an assignment, then later out of curiosity and admiration for the famed journalist. Realizing her genius, Blomkvist calls her bluff and the two join together as a classic detective team to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger.
It is with the psychologically complex character of Lisabeth Salander that Larsson elevates his story from a standard country-house mystery into something much more interesting. Played with ferocious intensity by Noomi Rapace, Salander has an extremely cold exterior, which masks a fragile interior -- the result of a life filled with terrible sexual abuse and victimization. Larsson uses her character to examine the wider theme of misogyny, which truly dominates the book's narrative. This is why the original title really expresses the spirit of his novel best. Larsson uses the thriller machinery to examine larger themes of religious fundamentalism, Nazism in Swedish culture, and in particular the role of the female as victim. Lisabeth Salander is at the heart of this, and of the writer's "Millennium Trilogy" as a whole.
It's a good thing that Larsson's story is as well constructed as it is, since the film itself is rather slackly produced. There is a kind of "Masterpiece Theater" feeling about the production, which seems more interested in getting all of the novel's major plot points onscreen than in making sure those plot points resound. The best way to describe this film would be to imagine Oplev as a Swedish Ron Howard. As with Howard's impersonal The Da Vinci Code, the film is professionally shot, ably acted, and edited. There is a certain level of suspense and atmosphere. But that's it. Swedish Ron Howard made a competent recording of the novel on film. What he didn't do was make a movie out of it. There is no concern at all with translating the book's events into a language more appropriate to cinema or with investing any personal feeling in the telling of the story. If you want to know what happens in Stieg Larsson's novel, the movie will tell you. If you want to live in the world of Larsson's novel, to experience the atmosphere of the island, or to feel the pain of the victims, the film will fail you completely. There is talk of an American remake, which for once sounds like a good idea. As long as the Swedish Ron Howard isn't replaced by the American one.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is being released onto DVD by Music Box Films Home Entertainment in a 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. I am not familiar with this company, and since I reviewed the disc from a screener, I can't be sure whether or not the strange artifacts and digital streaking that occurred from time to time were just a screener issue. The release version of the DVD includes an English-dubbed track for the "Subtitle-Challenged" and an interview with Rapace.