Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - History of Violence and Sexism in Sweden

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was one of the most intriguing reads I’ve picked up in the last six months.  In Sweden, the book’s title is “Men Who Hate Women,” an apt name for a novel filled with sexist fueled violence.  The Swedish film version condenses that intrigue and disturbing imagery into two and a half hours of well-executed, fast paced look into the violent nature and hidden secrets of a family tied together by location and business.

The movie begins with the framework – Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish financial journalist recently charged with libel and a jail sentence, is hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the murder of his niece Harriet in 1968.  Vanger, formerly of the large corporate entity the Vanger Group, lives on a cold island off the coast of Sweden inhabited by other members of his large family, none of whom really get along or like each other very much.  Eventually Lisbeth Salander, a ward of the state and skilled hacker, assists in what becomes a much larger series of crimes that culminated with Harriet vanishing off a blocked off island forty years before.

Since “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” started as a 600+ page novel, the movie drops some plot lines and condenses all the others.  In order for the story to make sense, key incidences happen out of order, including Mikael’s jail sentence, the point when Lisbeth joins the investigation and Henrik having a heart attack.

The movie rushes the conclusion of the main mystery and dampens the sense of imminent danger and fear from the novel.  The change in circumstance, while it makes sense within the confines of the movie’s story, lacks the stakes that pile up in the other medium.  Also, the entire storyline regarding the mention of Mikael being setup briefly mentioned in discussions regarding the Wennerstrom trial disappears from the narrative until the end, when a jarring change in scenery and circumstances causes the story to take a drastic turn to resolve an otherwise absent story thread.  The scenario is tacked on in order to setup the movie adaptation of the second novel rather than fitting in with the rest of the narrative.

Unfamiliarity with Swedish customs – particularly regarding adult wards of the state – could leave important details about the characters cloudy at best.  Flashbacks involving a fire as a child go unexplained, though it’s implied the situation cause her incarceration in a mental institution and have something to do with her father abusing her mother.  A similar situation in the states would have put her in jail.

Noomi Rapace embodies Lisbeth Salander, giving her the violent and distrusting nature that allows the character to have no sympathy and take revenge on abusers of women.  Her face twists into a near permanent scowl and her dry line reading demonstrates the antisocial nature that leads Mikael to believe she has Asperger syndrome in the book.  Due to the lack of time to embrace the follow up of the Wennerstrom trial and the resulting take down of the corrupt businessman, Salander’s ingenuity in disguise and planning – one of the most interesting portions of the novel – gets glossed over in the final few moments.  It takes away from some of the mystique that rounds out her character.  There’s something more to this character that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Michael Nyqvist plays a slubby, less impressive version of Mikael due to the lack of time to develop his character in terms of the supporting cast.  Erika Berger barely comes into play, much less as a married lover that, in the novel, gives Mikael a foil to develop his character.  Despite that, it was nice that not every woman falls into bed with him at first glance, a quality in the novel that seemed more wish fulfillment on the author’s part than reality.  Mikael is a solid lead that easily fades into the background in order to highlight the more interesting Lisbeth.

Henrik Vanger and his large extended family feature more in a mock-up family tree in Mikael’s house than as people.  It didn’t help that, when flesh and blood actors appeared on screen, most of the old, white-haired gentlemen looked like versions of the same person, so it was difficult to tell the Nazis from the more innocent bystanders.

Despite fast forwarded storylines that don’t embrace the twisting and turning nature of the novel, the superb acting and fast pace kept the story running from start to finish.  Exhilarating and intriguing despite some cultural ambiguity, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” definitely deserves more attention in the states before David Fincher twists it into an Americanize version.

ating: 4 out of 5 (awesome if no prior knowledge, but lacking something if familiar with the source material; not for those squeamish of sexual violence)

Currently available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.