This is certainly shaping up to be the year of the mystery thriller so far as I’m concerned. Every film that has truly and completely impressed me in 2010 has fallen into that category one way or another. Whatever else the films may be—and they are considerably more—Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Bong Joon-ho’s Mother are all mystery thrillers. To this list, we may now add Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—a film that shares something else with its predecessors in that it’s as much a dark, disturbing character study as a thriller. Whether this reflects the mood of our particular place in time can only be answered by the passage of time and perspective.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is actually part one of the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Its original—and actually more apt—title translates as Men Who Hate Women, which is the theme that runs through the film in several different incarnations. The other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have already been filmed—with a different director and screenwriter—but have yet to make it to the U.S. This really matters very little, since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, while suggesting a possible continuation at its end, is complete in itself.
The film is a particularly convoluted mystery that is made up of interconnected stories that only eventually intersect. The characters have connections to each other, even if they’re not aware of them. The story starts with a writer for Millennium magazine, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), being found guilty of libeling a corrupt Swedish industrialist. What he does not know is that he’s under surveillance by Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a strange and strangely belligerent goth girl who works for a security firm that’s been hired by an aged industrial magnate, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to perform a very thorough background check on Mikael.
It transpires that Henrik wants Mikael to use the six months he has before serving his three-month sentence for libel to try to solve the 40-year-old mystery of the disappearance of Henrik’s niece, Harriet Vanger (Julia Sporre). Henrik is convinced she was murdered by a member of his greedy and very unlovely family and that the murderer is still alive and taunting him by sending him a framed pressed flower once a year, as Harriet had done in her youth. It also turns out that Mikael knew Harriet when he was a young boy and that his father worked for Henrik. Intrigued—and promised a great deal of money—Mikael takes the job against his better judgment, the wishes of Henrik’s family and the local police.
Lisbeth, who is of the opinion that Mikael was set up in the libel case, continues to monitor his activities as best she can—a situation complicated by her own status as being on a kind of parole and under the control of a new legal guardian (actually more of a probation officer), who turns out to be a sadistic pervert. (This subplot—uncomfortably graphic in its presentation—is actually essential to understanding Lisbeth.) In fact, she not only provides Mikael with his first real clue, but also does so in a way that she deliberately makes it easy for him to track her down. The result is that the two join forces and become personally involved—at least to the degree that Lisbeth can become involved.
What I’ve given you here is really little more than the setup. The mystery—or mysteries—is much more complicated than anything I’ve written suggests. Apart from one question that no one, mystifyingly, thinks to ask, the mystery is beautifully constructed and Oplev’s direction is striking, stylish and atmospheric. There are clever—frequently disconcerting—revelations along the way and a strong sense of something truly evil underneath it all. None of its 146-minute running time is dull, each turn of the plot makes sense, and the outcome of just about everything is extremely satisfying.
However, there’s much more to the film than its mystery. The characters are particularly well drawn and developed, especially Lisbeth as the titular tattooed girl. Her mystery—which the film pierces a bit at a time—is fully as intriguing as the central mystery story. Everything she does becomes explicable by the end of the film. There’s an irony to it as well, since Mikael, commenting on their relationship, remarks that she knows everything about him and yet he knows nothing about her. It’s the exact reverse for the viewer on examination. We learn a great deal about Lisbeth, but very little about Mikael—except that he appears to be decent and uncorrupted, the only necessary details that draw Lisbeth to him, even against her will (though possibly not against her needs and desires).
I should note that while I found the film utterly compelling and satisfying, the movie—which is not rated—is very upfront in its depiction of violence and sexuality. Some may find the violence—especially the sexual violence—extremely disturbing and even offensive. But I’d argue that it’s essential to the film. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo falls into the must-see category. Please do not wait for the Americanized remake by David Fincher that’s already predictably in development. Not rated, but contains violence, nudity, sexuality and language.