Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
“The Millenium Trilogy” is a series of novels written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson and published posthumously to critical and commercial acclaim over the past few years. All three bestsellers have been adapted into equally successful films that have broken box-office records across Europe, and the first of the three films is just now starting to hit the US. The films are subtitled and therefore destined to die a fairly quick death in US theaters, so catch them when you can.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a crusading journalist in a bit of ethical trouble. His latest story, written exclusively for his own magazine, has led to a libel conviction and an upcoming stint behind bars. Forced to step away from the magazine while he awaits sentencing, he accepts an intriguing and lucrative offer from a wealthy industrialist to look into the death of the man’s favorite niece forty years ago. The mystery takes him to a secluded island and a family filled with secrets, suspicions, and lies. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a young, genius hacker with troubles of her own. A lifetime punctuated with abuse has formed a dark and deliberate shell around, but when she stumbles into the same case Blomkvist is investigating the pair team up to solve the mystery together. Their professional relationship becomes something more and they soon find themselves in the cross-hairs of a killer.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has two goals and it achieves them both to varying degrees. It’s a mystery thriller about a decades-old killing with a present day connection, but it’s also a condemnation of Swedish society’s blind eye towards a system apparently rampant with abuse and mistreatment. The thriller side of things works for the most part due to a combination of strong lead characters and a truly intriguing and detailed mystery. Names and faces can get overwhelming at times, but the narrative manages to stay focused throughout and leads to a satisfying conclusion. The accusations of a system complicit with an array of abuses, particularly against women, don’t fare as well though as the message hits with the subtlety and force of a blunt hammer.
The mystery at the core of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the film’s true strength. It blossoms beyond a single death to encompass a serial murderer, racism, sexual assault, cover-ups, and more. Adding to the suspense of Blomkvist’s investigation into the past is an ever-growing list of suspects circling him in the present. The small town he’s working in becomes a web of dark histories and darker motivations, but the locals aren’t the only ones with secrets. Salander’s own personal history has resulted in a skilled young woman with few if any inhibitions. Her determination, guts, and peculiar brand of crazy may be all that stands between the truth being revealed and the appearance of two more bodies.
Director Niels Arden Oplev has crafted a beautiful film (albeit one filled with ugliness). A threatening urban landscape gives way to the blinding whites and rolling greens of a wooded island in winter, and Oplev’s camera treats it all with equal devotion. Interiors move between the warmth of two lovers in bed to the cold machinations of a rapist or killer at work, and both situations are presented with precision and true craft. Oplev also moves the story at a very deliberate pace as he meters out information slowly and assuredly. At times he risks slowing things down too much as the central mystery is seemingly sidetracked by Salander’s travails, but her story is actually relevant in ways both obvious and buried.
The film shines on the acting front as well. Nyqvist brings the perfect amount of middle-aged, sagging comfort to the role of Blomkvist, and he exists believably as an average man caught up in something bigger than he is. His search for the truth and for some measure of personal and professional vindication is his identifiable trait that makes him a successful stand-in for the viewer. Salander though, and Rapace by extension, is a marvel. Her focus is intense and even the more relaxed scenes find her eyes always moving and aware. Salander is batted back and forth between victim and aggressor, and Rapace wears the solace, pain, and rage across her entire character. Together the two form a believable bond from their investigation and discoveries, a believable friendship from their growing mutual respect, and a slightly unbelievable love affair from their close proximity.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an epic and brutal mystery about the far-reaching and long lasting effects of hate. Like the book (but less so) it also serves as an eye-opening look at sanctioned social injustices in a country that promotes a much kinder international image. The length hurts the films at times, but fans of mysteries solved by way of old-school investigation, deduction, and interviews will find much to love here. The film’s message about violence against women is presented perhaps a bit too brutally though, and it risks being drowned out by images of the very thing it’s railing against. Length and brutality aside the movie is an entertaining and engrossing mystery well worth seeing in the theater.
The Upside: Strong acting by the entire cast; an odd mix of old mystery and present day killings; an intriguing relationship and dynamic between the two leads; an important accusation against a society in denial
The Downside: Gives an extremely negative view of Sweden; fans of the book may mourn some of the missing subplots; violence towards women is fairly extreme; runs a bit too long
Related Topics: Foreign Objects