THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: Reading Subtitles is Less Work Than Reading a Book

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) – Directed by Niels Arden Oplev – Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil-Taube, Peter Haber, Marika Lagerkrantz, Lena Endre, Bjorn Granath, and Ingvar Hirdwall.

Niels Arden Oplev’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has officially become the newest member of the “Just Watch the Damn Movie” Club. They don’t get a hat or ID card or secret decoder ring for being in this club, but they get me yapping about the movie to everyone, which is sure to rake everyone involved a half-penny or half-kroner or so from all the extra residuals I generate.

They should probably send me a secret decoder ring, come to think about it.

As I started watching DRAGON unfold, I kept thinking about people who would enjoy the movie “as long as it wasn’t in Swedish,” but at some point during this bleak but engrossing film I decided I’m going to recommend it anyway and when people give me the “I hate reading subtitles” bit, I’ll respond with, “Just watch the damn movie.”

Oplev’s movie is long, bleak, beautiful, surprisingly tense film about a journalist and a hacker attempting to solve a 40-year old mystery about the disappearance of a young woman.

I don’t know what’s going in Sweden, but between this and Wallander, Sweden apparently prefers their detectives dour and more determined than bright.

Mikael Blomkvist is a middle-aged journalist who’s sentenced to a few months of jail time after losing a libel case. (He was set-up.) He’s got a few months to kill before reporting for prison, so lucky for him an old rich dude had a favorite niece disappear four decades ago and wants the mystery solved.

Blomkvist goes about solving the crime but he’s a better reporter than detective (although not so good he couldn’t be set-up), so lucky for him (yet again) that Lisbeth Salander has been hacking his files to give a report on him to the Vanger Group.

The middle-aged dude and the fiesty young lass eventually team up and solve the mystery. There’s Nazis involved, because we have to tell as many stories with Nazis as possible while there’s still some left alive, but the focus isn’t on villains as much at is mystery.

The film does a wonderful job of wringing suspense and creating tension without ever really devolving into full-out “thriller” mode. For example, there’s not so much gun fights as there is Mikael getting shot at, and the film saves its heroic actions largely for solving the crime. The filmmakers do an excellent job at intercutting between Mikael out in the world and Lisbeth doing research.

Let me back up.

Here’s how the film builds the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth.

In Part One, she’s investigating him for the Vanger group because Old Man Vanger is looking for someone to solve the mystery of the missing Harriet. Lisbeth has spent time in a psychiatric facility because she lit her dad on fire for beating up her mom when she was younger, so she has to have a guardian as part of her probation. She gets a new guardian and this dirty old creep forces her to give him head in exchange for her to have access to her money. He, of course, doesn’t give her the requested amount.

Lisbeth’s response is to come back with a camera and tape the next head-for-cash exchange, but the f*ck beats her, ties her to the bed, and rapes her. After she’s recovered (as much as can be expected) Lisbeth comes back, subdues him, strips him, ties him up, sticks a sex toy up his butt and forces him to watch the tape of him raping her. Then she tattoos “I’m a a sadist pig and a rapist” on his chest and blackmails him to stay the hell out of her life.

What’s impressive about how the film handles all of this is that there’s a real sense of action and consequence and not just cheap theatrics.

With her regained freedom, Lisbeth decides to start solving Mikael’s mystery. He tracks her down and they team up.

Part Two of their relationship sees them learning to trust one another as they start solving the mystery. There’s the push and pull of her aggressiveness and standoffishness and his contemplativeness and empathy.

It’s in Part Two where the film ratchets up the suspense as it uncovers the mystery of what Harriet knew. There’s really fantastic work using old photographs as the starting point of the investigation that’s just phenomenally executed. The way Oplev keeps bringing the same photos back again and again after deploying new information to recontextualize them is completely compelling.

Just the idea of having a photo depicting Harriet seeing something that the camera can’t see is such a wonderful narrative move that it creates the traction the film needs as it gives Mikael and Lisbeth time to grow towards one another.

They hook up but it’s completely unromantic – both in how it happens and how its shot. Lisbeth puts up a false front of disinterest that, in her efforts to not care make you (and Mikael) care about her even more. The film blessedly stays away from fronting the relationship and instead keeps the mystery and the suspense out front and then pointedly utilizes their growing feelings for one another to punctuate that tension.

It’s that punctuation that characterizes Part Three of their relationship, which sees the elongated sequence that cuts Mikael’s capture at the hands of one of the film’s bad guys with Lisbeth’s research into the Vanger Group’s financial records.

Part Four sees them split as they go their separate ways after the mystery is solved, but not before she delivers evidence to him that allows him to restore his reputation.

This is a film soaked with the power people exert on others and how men use sexual violence to intimidate women. When this happened in the ’60s, women disappeared. When it happens now, women fight back.

It’s also a movie about the systemic failure of government agencies – the cops can’t solve the mystery, the legal system is abused to get Mikael convicted, and most importantly, Lisbeth has been let down and abused so much by the legal system (beyond whatever one thinks of her original placement in an institution) that she’s turned almost completely insular and refuses to go to the authorities for anything.

DRAGON is a powerful movie about living outside the systemic channels – for good and for evil.

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3 thoughts on “THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: Reading Subtitles is Less Work Than Reading a Book

  1. The two things I like about this movie: 1) It’s a pleasure to watch a mystery that is solved by the application of sheer brain power coupled with an understanding of human nature and personal experience backed up with soild deductive reasoning. Yeah, Lisbeth and Mikael do use computers but they don’t totally rely on them and there’s no last minute DNA to point at the murderer. 2) The sex between Lisbeth and Mikael doesn’t mean they’re going to have this major romance. Despite what a lot of people would rather believe, sometimes people have sex just to be having sex. Or release tension. Or just for fun.

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    • Well said, Derrick. I think the use of computers here is subservient to the investigation – I don’t mind when cops use science to help them, but on too many shows and in too many movies, cops are almost useless without them. That’s one of the things I love about Caleb Carr’s ALIENIST novel – it’s set early in the development of so many scientific advancements that cops come to rely on that it keeps them as a tool.

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      • I agree. You watch most cop shows/movies and it’s as if the cops rely on one thing only: DNA. And computers should be used as they are in this movie: as a tool to assist in solving the mystery. Not magic boxes that give all the answers at the press of a button.

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