Thursday, April 1, 2010

A gripping 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

Mess with this girl at your peril.

Based on the best-selling novel by Steig Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may be one of those rare films that topples art-house walls, mostly because the book has received such wide exposure. How wide? When I see a book for sale at Costco - as was the case with this one - I feel safe in concluding that it doesn't qualify as arcane.

This could be a case in which the movie appeals to both readers of the book and to those who are unfamiliar with its story, which -- at least come crunch time - isn't all that amazing. That's not to say that Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn't finely wrought. Deft direction from Niels Arden Oplev gives the movie an eerie, suggestive flow, and Oplev immerses us in a world full of violence and sexual perversity. Add connections to a Nazi past that's on the verge of being forgotten, and we've got a full-blown case of moral rot.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo draws an interesting and often uneasy parallel between two characters, a persistent investigative journalist and a computer hacker who works for a firm that conducts sensitive investigations into people's personal lives. Both eventually are lured into taking a fresh look at a 40-year-old crime, the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, a member of the wealthy but viperous Vanger family.

The journalist (Michael Nyqvist) and the researcher (Noomi Rapace) are victims, as well as seekers of truth. Nyqvist's Mikael Blomkvist has been wrongly convicted of libel and sentenced to six months in prison. His face has been splattered across Stockholm's tabloids. His reputation has been ruined. Because Rapace's Lisbeth has a criminal record, she's being exploited and abused by her probation officer (Peter Andersson), one of the more disgustingly creepy characters to hit the screen in some time.

Both journalist and researcher are drawn into the same sphere when retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) decides to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the niece Henrik had come to regard as a daughter. Vanger believes that Harriet long ago was murdered, but he wants the journalist to take a fresh look at a crime the police have been unable to solve. Vanger originally hired Lisbeth to check out Blomkvist, but even after she delivers her report, she maintains an interest in the journalist's work.

Rapace's performance provides the movie with at least as much mysterious charge as the crime that's being investigated. Lisbeth can hack into any computer system, but she's no geeky patsy. With a severe punk haircut and a variety of body piercings, Lisbeth is clearly an outcast, and the movie quickly lets us know that she can give as good as she gets. Lisbeth has a gratifying taste for vengeance, revealed after a gruesome and graphic scene in which her probation officer rapes her. Let's just say that it doesn't take long for Lisbeth to express her rage.

Like us, Blomkvist can't quite get a handle on Lisbeth, who eventually joins with him to look for Harriet's killer. He's attracted to Lisbeth, wary of her and never fully able to understand a 24-year-old who reveals little about herself. How could he? Rapace hides her character's interior life behind an aggressively hostile facade: leather jackets, a stony affect and the fearsome tattoo that gives the movie its title. (In Sweden, both book and movie were titled Men Who Hate Women, which gives you some idea about what lurks beneath the movie's surface.)

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo introduces a female character who's considerably tougher than her male counterpart. Blomkvist has six months to kill before the start of his jail sentence, but he's also emotionally tapped out. He has nothing left to say as a journalist, which may be why he takes a job working for Vanger in the first place. Lisbeth tends to steer clear of the kind of rumination that burdens men such as Blomkvist. She's a creature of instinct, and her impulses operate almost as quickly as the computers she so adeptly uses. As played by Rapace, Lisbeth seems hard-wired for self-protection.

It's Lisbeth who figures out the most important clues about Harriet's disappearance. And it's Lisbeth, finally, who has the stomach to exact every ounce of justice from the villains in the piece. The woman does not play.

I only became aware of the movie's 2 1/2-hour length during the extended coda that follows the story's real climax. Oplev has lots of loose ends to tie up. Some are interesting, but by the time they roll around, the movie already has delivered its biggest kick.

Still, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - a surefire candidate for a Hollywood remake - has the kind of cool surfaces that brim with tension, and Oplev keeps us wondering precisely what will crawl from under the next overturned rock. Isn't that a goal to which almost every worthy thriller aspires? This one's also eager to expose the soul of a society where the predators often seem to outnumber the prey.

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