Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The eponymous “girl” is the only reason to see this dull, misconceived drama that centers on a defamed male journalist who takes a job with a rich industrialist.

The stark, frozen expanse of the Swedish countryside, the setting for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, presages a long investigation into the disappearance and apparent death of heiress Harriet Vanger—but an ice age unfolds before Harriet’s (Ewa Fröling) secret is revealed. Despite its intriguing title, the film, which is based on a posthumously published novel by Swedish author-journalist Stieg Larsson, is not shot from the point of view of a girl with a dragon tattoo. Instead, its central character is Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist and the lead investigator, a brooding, expressionless guy whose only motivation appears to be the money he’s paid to find the killer. The movie opens with a muddled back-story about Mikael and the “girl” he eventually hires, and then moves at a glacial pace to the inevitable discovery of the Vanger family’s debauchery.

The film starts with Mikael’s resignation from his job as an investigative reporter after a series of articles he’s written lead to a national scandal; Mikael is at loose ends when Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube), the aging head of the Vanger clan, offers him the job of looking for his beloved niece. Harriet, who was to inherit Henrik’s fortune, vanished decades ago, and he suspects she was murdered by a member of the family.

Shortly after Mikael begins his search, he discovers that someone has hacked into his computer and is following the case. The hacker is Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a pierced, leather-clad, bisexual computer genius and the only bright spot in this dull movie. Instead of prosecuting her, Mikael hires her as his researcher. Lisbeth’s interest in Harriet’s disappearance is obviously motivated by her quest to rid the world of misogynists. In the end, it’s not the resolution of the crime that keeps you in your seat—it’s the question of how far Lisbeth will go to restore justice.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, who co-wrote and directed Worlds Apart (2008), the story of a young Jehovah’s Witness who leaves the flock, appears to have a special talent for getting excellent performances from young actresses. Teenager Rosalinde Mynster is wonderful as that film’s conflicted girl protagonist, and 30-year-old Rapace as the “girl” with the tattoo is equally riveting, so much so that any scene without her is hardly worth watching. Both films are adaptations, but in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the screenplay apparently strives for literary authenticity rather than cinematic translation. For instance, Mikael and Lisbeth are introduced at the beginning of the film in lengthy sequences that hint at plotlines which have nothing to do with Harriet Vanger. Movie back-stories require more deftness, especially in mysteries, which are essentially plot-driven.

A protagonist with a purely financial motivation who does not undergo a transformation is a mistake in any movie, and in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s doubly disastrous because of Nyqvist’s inability to display any sort of emotion. Lisbeth is the one with the dark past, and with a mix of motivations that prove far more compelling as the film unfolds. Although it seems unnecessary to point out such an obvious flub, she’s also the title character. While it is impossible to know why Lisbeth is not the protagonist, that is ultimately why the movie does not work. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should be a chick flick, a tale about a woman who avenges the brutalization of other women. Instead, it’s a misconceived drama about a journalist who is defamed by one wealthy, unscrupulous man, and then takes money from another rich man who wants to prevent his relatives from inheriting his fortune. If there is a story there, it is not the film.