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Written by Rasmus Heisterberg and directed by Niels Arden Oplev
152 Minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content including rape, grisly images, sexual material, nudity and language.

In formulating my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there are a couple of worthy angles to take. The first is addressing the fact that the film is an adaptation of a novel and shows all of the earmarks of it. The second is addressing the film's simultaneous disregard for and utter devotion to genre. The third is to compare it to its countryman, Let the Right One In. The fourth is to address its sexual politics. And the fifth is to explain why a film this potentially complex gets what's essentially a C+, B- if you're kinky.

We can combine three of these right away. My experience with Swedish film is limited to this film and Let the Right One In; Opley's film is far superior to its grossly overrated cousin. In both cases we have adaptations of existing material in that they both are sourced to novels. In both cases we have films that struggle with maintaining a tone. In both cases we have films that skip between genres while working under a single larger umbrella. It's a difficult review to write, and all of the things that keep The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from achieving more are intertwined. The tail of the snake is in its teeth tonight.

The core of the film is Noomi Rapace's character, the titular girl, Lisbeth. This is the kind of role good actors will fall over each other for, and Rapace utterly and completely owns it. Her character is a force of nature, and though we learn precious little about her history, her character is built almost entirely through action and better still...what's obviously a black history plays across Rapace's face at all times. Lisbeth has lived through far more than any woman, than any person ever should, and nearly everything that happens to her during the course of the film feels less like an immediate transgression and more like an echo. The screenplay hints and jabs, but largely leaves things up to Rapace to fill in the gaps with her performance.

Where the film loses its way is the story that it surrounds her with. It isn't a bad story, but the core murder mystery plot is very pulpy. It's well done, and the other players are game enough, but it lacks her depth and has the audacity to strip her of a great deal of her power and identity with an unspeakably dreadful coda. The other lead, Blomkvist, is certainly compelling enough and the odd couple dynamic he produces with Lisbeth is effective for about two-thirds of the running time. Michael Nyqvist does a fine job with the role, but his character is grossly overshadowed by Lisbeth, and his squeaky-clean reporter is just a little bit too stock to be paired up with a partner so distinctive. Their inevitable romance is understandable and fascinating in Lisbeth's context, while serviceable at best and trite at worst in his own.

That's kind of the problem. The sexual politics of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are mighty grisly material, and the film really pushes the limits of good taste. Sexual assault is particularly nasty business in film, where it must be realized visually and it's largely up to the director to handle it as tastefully as possible; Opley is up to the task, but his script begins to fail him when it starts throwing the "r" word around more and more liberally as the proceedings draw to a close.

I suspect there are going to be two readings of the sexual politics within the film: one that's extremely misogynistic, and one that's more humanistic. The misogynistic read is far too cynical and too easy a conclusion to jump to, and it's the kind of thing many a self-styled feminist familiar with the word "rape" but not the experience (personal or peripheral) will make a run for. I think reading things in a more humanistic fashion will produce a more satisfying conclusion and lend the film depth that I do think is earned in this regard. Anyone who disagrees would do well to pay very close attention to the love scene between Lisbeth and Mikael.

Unfortunately, the complexities of sex are almost entirely disposed of by the end of the film, an ending which fucking sucks 100% and is a filthy cheat of a happy ending. Every time The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo threatens to be something more than the sum of its parts, something more than just a solid if unexceptional genre picture, it plummets right back into cliche. Excellent scenes will be followed by the asinine reveal you've come to expect from a mystery. I want desperately to be critical of dialogue that's punishingly direct and rote, but I got the sense the subtitling job was heavily truncated and I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that a great deal of nuance has been lost. I don't need to speak Swedish to know these subtitles are terrible, devoid of color or character.

But bad subtitles don't excuse the twists the plot takes and they don't excuse the singular phenomenon of Lisbeth being surrounded by a film that's just too...bland. That's not even getting into how obvious the adaptation from novel to screen is; there's a class of adaptation that tries to be fairly faithful but has to make deep cuts to hit a reasonable running time, and that's the class The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo belongs in. Other, better adaptations are ones that are more fluid with the source material and interested less in the specifics of the action and more about the overall theme and feel of the story: American Psycho and Pet Sematary come to mind.

There are a lot of things I liked in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I can understand why it was so well-received. Maybe crime stories just aren't for me, but the underlying plot of the film just doesn't feel like it can withstand the weight of its titular character.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.