Hollywood Gets Lesson in Murder, and Piercings
By Ethan Gates '12, A&L Section Editor
The art of picking a great title for a film is lost on most Hollywood marketers. “Clash of the Titans?” Gosh, I wonder if titans will clash in that one. “Date Night?” That’s just vague; you would predict that one was either a “Sex and the City” knockoff or the hippest new thing in the mumblecore movement before you’d go with an action-comedy starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell. “Hot Tub Time Machine?” Okay, whoever came up with that one is brilliant, but still.

I pity the directors of foreign films seeking U.S. distribution, forced to stand by as these morons who struggle with the concept of making a noun plural (can anyone please tell me why, for 60 years, even the most intelligent of critics have insisted on translating the plural “Ladri di bicicletta” as “The Bicycle Thief?”) tinker with their titles in an attempt to appeal to wider audiences (because the kind of people who go to see foreign films are totally the kind to be lured in by snappier titles). Case in point: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” An intriguing start to an even more intriguing story, to be sure, but the Swedish film’s title actually translates to “Men Who Hate Women,” and I can’t even begin to tell you what an appropriate introduction that phrase is to this film.

Based on the first in a trilogy of crime novels wildly popular in Sweden, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is brutal, daring and mesmerizing. It provides an excellent follow-up to “Mother,” the Korean thriller I reviewed two weeks ago, in a continuing series I like to call, “Foreign Films That Completely Defy Viewer Expectations; Or, Why Hollywood Needs to Grow a Pair.” It is graphic in ways that your run-of-the-mill crime films could only dream of: not just in its moments of explicit violence (and there are plenty of those), but in its ideas. A murdered body is a horrific, disgusting, disturbing sight, but then, so is any kind of dead body. What truly chills us to the bone is the idea that somewhere, somehow, someone found it reasonable, found it justified, to reduce another human being to such a terrible state. Behind that mutilated hunk of flesh is a story, and we are both terrified and entranced by that. We want to know, and we don’t want to know.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” starts out with a seemingly completely unrelated story: prominent investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has just been sentenced to three months in jail after being convicted of libel. He believes he was set up but refuses to appeal the sentence out of concern for his magazine’s reputation. Before he serves his jail time, he is summoned to the private estate of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the aging, wealthy CEO of a mysterious, family-owned corporation. Vanger has been impressed by Blomkvist’s investigative abilities (court case notwithstanding) and hires the journalist to investigate the disappearance of Vanger’s niece Harriet almost 40 years ago. Vanger believes the girl was murdered, and the isolated nature of their island home leaves only one possibility: the killer was a member of the Vanger family.

Meanwhile, the young, troubled and tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), for reasons that will forever remain her own, keeps an eye on Blomkvist’s investigations. Blomkvist eventually discovers his tracker and enlists Salander’s considerable assistance. As the two link Harriet’s disappearance to a string of grisly murders in the area, there are significant warning signs that they should back off the case, that they are in over their heads amongst a web of deceit, but it’s too late: they’ve seen the bodies, now they have to know the story. They want to know, and they don’t want to know.

The film’s director, Niels Arden Oplev, understands that a crime thriller’s plot is really of little consequence, so long as it is at least vaguely comprehensible. What truly hooks an audience is the strength of the film’s characters. While the title “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” may not sufficiently prepare the viewer for the violence against women that serves as the film’s central motif, it does at least fittingly recognize the way Lisbeth completely dominates the screen. Appallingly victimized but steadfastly iron-willed and resourceful, Lisbeth is an enigma. Her surly and harsh exterior cracks just enough to hint that she is nursing a painful, unsettling past, but little is definitive. Like the viewer, Mikael is curious about his partner’s back-story but doesn’t press her for answers. He wants to know, and he doesn’t want to know.

Noomi Rapace’s performance is nothing short of spellbinding. It takes no mean amount of acting chops to make the audience sympathize so thoroughly with a character we know so relatively little about. She is a fitting centerpiece for what should be a challenging and powerful trilogy. Of course, not content with mucking around with mistranslations, Hollywood is already planning on an English-language remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” with “Twilight” fave Kristen Stewart reportedly the actress desired to play Lisbeth Salander. Perhaps another title change would be appropriate in this case: “The Girl with the Typecast Career.”

Issue 23, Submitted 2010-04-26 07:46:20