The movie that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo most reminds me of is one that I watched earlier this year, Red Riding: 1974. Both films set off a trilogy, both are dark and mysterious and center around high-profile crimes that are kept hidden by corrupt players. Where this movie suffers is in its tendency toward becoming pulpy and demented rather than hitting hard on the drama. Of course, that’s also why the movie is so much fun.
It’s not a terribly imaginative set-up, the plot. The general idea is that disgraced muckraking journalist Mikael Blomkvist is given one last big mystery to solve before he is sent to prison for a story he did which was labeled libel due to some shady sources. He is hired to investigate the disappearance of a woman some fifty years prior, and the suspects are limited by the fact that the island the woman disappeared from was closed off on the day the mystery was set in motion. As Blomkvist begins his search for answers, it soon becomes clear that almost anybody in the family could be responsible for murdering the missing girl. It’s difficult not to say “Aha! It was him!” after each new character is introduced. But that’s kind of the the nature of a whodunit mystery such as this, as so well lampooned in the cult classic Clue. If everybody is a suspect, it’s just a matter of getting to the part where the culprit makes an over-the-top confession, complete with malicious laughter.
A fellow critic of mine, Ann Driscoll, writes that the film is “an unimaginative investigative procedural with a lurid and exploitative sensibility, unfocused storytelling, and plot elements that are…unraveled so poorly that they just seem absurd.” I can definitely see where those concerns come from, especially with the introduction of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the girl with the mythical serpent inked on her back. If you’re looking for an explanation for the tattoo, sorry, but you’re out of luck. In the second film in the series, one character describes Salander as being “invincible”, a trait that is exhibited strongly in the first movie. She’s a computer hacking genius, has a photographic memory that she wields like a super-power, and a thrilling penchant for vengeance upon “men who hate women”. Watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is like watching a good season of the Showtime original series ‘Dexter’. A lot of it is silly, but the good parts are great and when the character embraces her dark side, it’s easy to cheer her on because it’s driven by a fierce moral code as much as it is by her traumatic past (only hinted at here).
It’s an intriguing and tense ride, as the clues start to come together without any definable through line between them. The family that Blomkvist and Salander are investigating become increasingly agitated by the intrusion into their lives, and the danger level sky-rockets. Is the person responsible for the disappearance still alive, and are they willing to kill to keep their secret safe? Meanwhile, despite the strange bond between the young hacker and her older counterpart, Blomkvist and Salander seem almost be from separate films entirely. Maybe that’s why they work well together. Blomkvist hits the streets, talking to witnesses, pondering clues in old photographs; Salander zips through files and archived webpages, seeking connections.
As the tension mounts, as the clues start adding up, it’s easy to go along with the story even as it makes less and less sense. When answers eventually arrive, they feel randomly played at best. It’s executed in such a way that the viewer is not left thinking about this, but is instead drawn totally into the action. Even if it is a cheat, it’s done with a style and commitment that makes it all work – and it isn’t until the epilogue that one begins connecting the missing pieces. The final moments of the film, which show the extend of Lisbeth Salander’s cunning, are equally cheap and remarkably trite, but it’s easy to forgive in the face of such an engaging film overall.
Thinking about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earlier today, I wrote to a friend that it is “great, but not good”. I stand by that assessment. It’s an extremely enjoyable ride, with great atmosphere, committed actors, and an absorbing (if somewhat over-played) storyline. The movie wears its shortcomings on its sleeve, but easily overcomes that by being, above all else, entertaining.