Taken on the level of its plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev) is not particularly distinguished from other similar crime thrillers. Disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist is hired by a wealthy capitalist Henrik Vanger to find out what happened to his missing niece, who vanished some forty years in the past. The investigation brings Blomqvist into contact with professional computer hacker Lisabeth Salander, a goth girl savant with deep scars from her past, and in contact with a series of related crimes that appear to be motivated by the Vanger family's old ties to the Nazis. Pretty stock stuff, truth to tell--Agatha Christie would recognize its outlines--but expertly rendered. That's only the plot, and movies are often so much more than their plots. This one certainly is. The plot here serves mainly as a crucible in which to test its characters, and how those characters react is what makes the movie fascinating.
The original Swedish title of this film is Män som hatar kvinnor, literally "Men Who Hate Women." This is the major theme of the movie, and it's a narrative thread that brings Lisabeth out of the shadows of what would normally be a supporting role into the lead. The movie may nominally belong to Michael Nyqvist's Blomkvist, but it's Lisabeth who holds the screen against all comers. Played with brittle rage by Noomi Rapace, she's dramatically different from most movie heroines. Bisexual, pierced and tattooed, possibly an Aspie, she is a fundamentally damaged woman who nevertheless turns the tables on the narrative, just as she turns the tables on the rapist who abuses her. Rape and violence towards women are rampant in this movie, including at least two pretty graphic depictions, and it is tempting to class parts of the film as a rape/revenge fantasy. The movie is too smart for that, though. It weaves its rape content into a broader theme about misogyny on a far more sinister scale. This movie almost has to have a female protagonist, because putting a male protagonist amid these elements might seem apologetic.
The character arcs the film pursues for both Blomqvist and Lisabeth are essentially redemptive. Blomkvist seeks to recover the muse he has lost in the process of losing a libel suit, while Lisabeth is trying to live with a violent past. By the end of the film, both seem to have found their way back from the wilderness. Watching them work through their demons is the real pleasure of the film, and it's what keeps the audience watching--never bored in the least--as the movie unreels its longer than usual running time.
I have to say, though, that I was a bit disarmed when the credit for the Swedish Film Institute came onscreen at the beginning. It was like I was starting a Bergman film. Parts of the film look like Bergman, but that may be an unavoidable consequence of filming in the same light, because the filmmaking on display here is very different. This is the computer age, after all, and Lisabeth is a computer savant--the film actually shows what she's doing, which is unusual for hacker's in movies--and the movie takes its cues from multimedia, often providing exposition in layered images superimposed on one another. The obsession with images is descended from Blow-Up, if you want a reference point for this film's structure, but it doesn't look much like that film, either. I like, too, the way it inverts the gender dynamics of its final confrontation with the murderer, by making Blomkvist the loose cannon who goes poking around inadvisably and by making Lisabeth the knight errant. It's a neat trick on genre conventions. Finally, I like the relationship that develops between Blomkvist and Lisabeth--lovers, eventually, but an odd coupling. Lisabeth knows everything about Blomkvist, as he notes, but he knows almost nothing about her. She leaves him that way, too.
One measure of a good movie is whether or not the characters wear out their welcome. Do you want to spend more time in their company after the credits roll? For me, for this film, the answer is yes, and fortunately, this is the first film of a trilogy. The other chapters, The Girl who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest have already been filmed. I'm looking forward to them.