Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Spy"

Investigative reporter Mikael Blomqvist (a nom de plume purloined from the fictional detective Kalle Blomqvist) has just been found guilty of libel for an article he wrote about a powerful Swiss indutrialist. In six months he's set for the barry hotel, but in the meantime, he has down-time. He gets an invitation for a job—the coldest of cases, literally and metaphorically—on the remote wintry island that serves as a compound for the Vanger family.

The Vangers are the Swiss cousins of all the encrusted old-money families of British and American detective fiction. Be they Baskervilles or Armstrongs or Sternwoods, the "storied" elite families stood in for the Rothschilds and Lindberghs and Morgans and Rockefellers in a literary class warfare that assured the punters that bad things happened to the rich, as well. In fact, it was more than likely to happen to them as money is the root of all things evil. Perhaps.

Money was on the family's mind that
Children's Day weekend on the Island, as a family board meeting was taking place, when one of the daughters disappeared, and her father drowned in a boating accident.
One of the patriarchs wants to know, finally, forty years after the fact, what happened to the girl, who killed her, and charges Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) with the task. For the discraced newsie, it's a case of interviews and solitary visits to the caked-in-dust morgues of newspaper offices and libraries. But, though isolated on the Island, he's being watched, not only by the family, but by a security investigator who's hacked his computer.

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace),"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,"* a 22 year old full-time goth-punk chain-smoking, bisexual, PTSD'd borderline schizophrenic, sociopathic, fire-fixated security-investigator-computer-hacker...and part-time judge, jury and executioner. And where Mikael is dusting off old store-rooms, she's mining hard-drives through the back-door for any information that might be useful, like, say, on the creep who's been appointed her guardian. Life has rumpled Mikael, but it's deeply scarred Lisbeth, and the two tarnished angels are linked by more than cyberspace in a mutual interest making peoples' forgotten pasts their field of play.

They were made for each other, and, as both are incapable of seeing a mystery
without inserting themselves, fated to team up to solve the question, if it is to be solved.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is one of those whodunnit's much in love with
every squeaking trope, and dangling aringarosa of the detective literary genre, and the puzzle is of the classic "Closed Room" variety—a traffic accident cut off the one exit to the bridge when the skull-duggery happened, so the scope of the search is limited to who might have been on that island to perpetrate it. The clues are varied in sources and nature, an old diary the girl kept with no entries that might lend suspicion, the few photographs taken that week-end...and Blomkvist's own memories—the girl was his nanny on Island holidays—provide nagging evidence, as does a single portrait that haunts him, like the Mona Lisa.

There are so many referrals to past films noir and sleuth-cinema that one could get lost in many a blind-alley (not that there are many on a rural Swedish island), but there are more than enough cousins and butlers and drawing rooms to go around—as with the best mysteries, no one is a suspect, but everyone is.

It is violent—there are two upsetting rape scenes that are essential to the plot, ultimately—
but there is a cross-running sub-theme of sexual tyranny equating male sexism and domination as a form of fascism (it's an in-bred cousin to the feminism issues that made "The Silence of the Lambs" more important than a "boogey-man" story) that makes the film interesting philosophically in the genre. Director Niels Arden Oplev stages those scenes in a brutal manner that divorces them from any sexual act and makes them sadistic acts of violence, but one should be warned that there is rough stuff, far beyond cloak-room murders and high tea. The film is unrated, but consider it a hard "R."

It's a cracking pastiche, with the best thing about it being the (English version's)titular character. A product of the very brutality embodied by the mystery itself, the stakes are personal for Salander (and Blomkvist, certainly), but, like the Hannibal Lecter character in "Silence of the Lambs," she is such a wild-cannon on deck during the proceedings that her motivations keep your thinking cap distracted from the mystery at hand. As played by Rapace, she is a kabuki-like presence than can turn ninja on a dime, a literal smoking gun, who can make things better or worse, depending on her buried mood, making the film categorical as "Suspense" as well as "Mystery."

The other films in the trilogy will be released later in the year. Then, an American remake is planned...
at this writing starring Brad Pitt and Carey Mulligan.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a Matinee.

* That's what it is known as in English-speaking publishing circles where mysteries series need a unifying "hook" like John D. McDonald's colorful titles for the Travis McGee novels, or "Cat" series of Lilian Jackson Braun. In its native Sweden, the title—"Män som hatar kvinnor "— translates to the more straight-forward and to-the-point, "Men Who Hate Women." The popular series of novels, dubbed the "Millennium Trilogy" (for the publication Blomqvist works for) stopped at three due to the untimely death of its reporter/author Stieg Larsson of a heart attack at age 50, before the first could be published.


The Mad Hatter said...

Shannon the Movie Moxie and I were talking about this movie over pints this week, and both of us found ourselves in the same place when trying to write about it.

"That film was so good...but how the hell do I recommend something so dark and violent to people?"

Did you have any of that hesitation when you sat down to write this?

At the same table, Monika from Cinematical and I discussed the rumour of Mulligan as Lisbeth. Both of us thought her an odd choice, but were very curious to see what she could bring to the part. Now though, if /Film's story is true, she's not doing it.

Great post!

Yojimbo said...

Thanks, Mad.

An upcoming review of "Silence of the Lambs" will tackle that very subject.

No, I have no qualms, given proper warnings. I have sensitive people in my life that I keep in mind when writing, but sensitive people can also have spines of steel and a resiliency that mustn't be discounted. And intelligence.

You can't shield people, but you can't take away their choice, either. And, anyway, I try to not tell people to go see a movie or not—that's putting on more of a mantle than I deserve.

But, quality will out. "Se7en" is a movie I find repugnant in subject matter, but is it good? "A Clockwork Orange?" Everybody reacts to movies differently, just as everyone has a different sense of humor. All you can do is say "this movie is good because...and oh, and watch out for a bit of this"

So..."Silence of the Lambs." I used to work with a guy, very esoteric, liberal, high-minded, great guy. I told him I saw "Silence of the Lambs" and thought it was damned good if queasi-scary, and he said "I won't go see a movie about THAT!"--Killing, skinning women, cannibalism—-I said, "Yeah, I know what you mean, but there's an under-pinning of women's issues in it that make it interesting."

That's all I said.

Next time I worked with him, he was quiet for a time. Then, he tentatively offered: "Sooooo, I wernt to see "Silence of the Lambs...." "And?" "THAT's a REALLY good MOVIE!"

So, ya know?

The Mad Hatter said...

...Yeah..."I know"...

Now that I think about it, it wasn't that we couldn't recommend it because of its darkness, it was more just because it was so heavy that neither of us really knew where to start when it came to writing about it

You're right, the wuality will win out in the end, and SE7EN, CLOCKWORK, and LAMBS are all great examples.

When it came down to it, I decided to zero in on the character of Lisbeth since she's so freakin' memorable and unique. I'm glad that there are two more films to be had out there with this actress playing this woman!

Simon said...

Excellent review, I especially like the comparison to Silence of the Lambs. I think Mulligan would be pretty good as Lisbeth, but anyway, she (Lisbeth) is kind of my hero. She's badass, okay?


Yojimbo_5 said...

Tetch-that would have been my other route to take, for exactly the reason you and Simon mention.

Lisbeth is like "Dexter" (if you've seen it), an almost alien human who takes care of the bad guys in a way that satisfies our blood-lust for revenge but also keeps our hands clean. They take on our worst instincts, do our dirty work and absolve us from blame-a combination of cop, killer, and Christ. What's not to love?

Besides the sociopath "thing."

Yeah, but I walked out of "Men Who Hate Women"--that's how I think of it--itching to see the next two, with this actress. Mulligan, I'm not so sure. If she can "sell" this with that elfin face, then she's as versatile an actress as everyone seems to think she is.