Men Who Hate Women: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For a film so dependent on its plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s story isn’t as gripping as it needs to be. Though seemingly meant to genuinely unsettle us, it too often feels like little more than an exercise in paint-by-numbers. Take its premise, for instance: a falsely-convicted journalist whose name has been dragged through the mud gets a chance to redeem himself and make a few bucks in the process; a family with much to hide on a secluded island adds layers of intrigue; alternative-looking love interest helps everything fall into place and the skeletons come out of the closet one by one. The murder mystery that serves as Dragon‘s catalyst is fine as a starting point, but director Niels Arden Oplev seems less interested in turning the late Stieg Larsson’s 2004 novel into a resonant look at the innate darkness of his native Sweden than an atrocity exhibition a few rungs higher up the ladder than Saw. To this end, there are liberal doses of graphic violence, three rape scenes that add nothing to the plot–and far too little in the way of character development–to justify their inclusion in the first place (to say nothing of their excessive length), and an undercurrent of Nazism lest we forget that even a socialist haven like Sweden has its dark underbelly.

Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), the girl of the film’s title, stands out immediately, if only outwardly. A highly-skilled hacker with Goth sensibilities, she’s more than capable of defending herself against the numerous men who try to harm her sexually and physically–which is lucky, since there seem to be so many of them. Unfortunately, Lisbeth does little that isn’t in keeping with the way she presents herself to the world: she looks like a tough chick with no intention of taking anyone’s shit, and acts accordingly. From her piercings and haircut to her motorcycle, Lisbeth ends up being more stereotypical than distinctive. Only during the small handful of scenes where Lisbeth shows even an iota of vulnerability did I find myself especially interested in her; these moments, though worthy, are few and far between.

Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), on the other hand, is a bit of a cipher. The character seems to have been painted in such neutral colors as to never allow us a close look at him. Even when faced with mortal danger, he simply doesn’t seem too bothered–and not in a James Bond kind of way, either. At the onset, it appears as though his immersion into the investigation of his babysitter’s disappearance almost forty years earlier might lead him, Zodiac-style, into an obsession that reveals as much about him as it does the crime. Not so. We never really learn what makes Mikael tick and, for that matter, why we’re meant to care about him. He isn’t so much unlikeable as he is unknowable, which is odd given that, despite its title, Dragon seems to be more about him than it does Lisbeth–she may be the film’s lynchpin, but he is its backbone. (And, on that note, why name the movie after a tattoo that has literally no implications on anything other than itself? Rather than distinguish Lisbeth, it typifies her, not least because we’re never even told of its significance. Instead, we merely see a few brief glimpses of the ink, something seemingly done to amplify its mystery but with the converse effect of underscoring how unimportant it actually is.)

At a full two-and-a-half hours long, the film’s pacing becomes an issue as well. What starts as a slow burn turns, in the last fifteen minutes or so, into one apparently revelatory plot point after another being thrown at us. It doesn’t exactly make you look at your watch, but it certainly left me guessing as to why Lisbeth’s rape scenes take up nearly as much screentime as does the big reveal for which we’ve already waited two hours. Dragon isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but rather one whose grasp fails to meet its ambitions.

Article first published as Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Blogcritics.

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