Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Män som hatar kvinnor]

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the kind of adaptation that treats its source material as gospel and strays only when absolutely necessary. This is inherently a bad thing: a copy is never as crisp as the original. What keeps the movie coasting is that its source, Stieg Larsson’s runaway bestseller novel, is plotted so tightly in concert with its thematic density that the complexities of the book squeak through into the relatively graceless cinematic exercise.

The convoluted plot of the 600+ page, two-and-a-half-hour story is difficult to summarize, especially when attempting to limit oneself to a paragraph or two. There are two protagonists: Mikael Blomkvist (celebrity journalist) and Lisbeth Salander (reclusive hacker). The latter is the tattooed eponym, though its worth noting that the Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates literally as “Men who hate women.” I suppose this would’ve been more difficult to market, although it’s inarguably the better title given that [one] it’s awesome and [two] Lisbeth’s tattoo is only marginally important in the book and relegated to one or two shots in the film. Men who hate women are what this thing is about.

The two heroes are an unlikely odd couple teamed up in the 21st century to solve the mystery of a teenaged girl who disappeared in 1966. Harriet Vanger vanished from her family’s expansive island estate and was assumed murdered; dragging the river and combing the forest turned up no clues at all. Her uncle finally recruits Blomqvist to solve the case for him; Blomqvist is a reputable sleuth whose legal troubles have left him with a bit of free time. Salander comes along for the ride because — like Harriet — she is a victim of sexual assault and has a mean penchant for revenge.

Don’t cross Lisbeth Salander. This girl takes back the night like a fish takes a bicycle — desperately, with purpose. Several characters — major and minor, all men — attempt to gain influence or control over her throughout the course of the film and they all end up bloodied. She’s fascinating to watch (and to read): antisocial yet insatiably curious, sexually repressed yet sexually voracious, fucked up but fun.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, working with a pair of cinematographers (Jens Fischer and Eric Kress), turns the Swedish countryside into a snowy anti-noir that is as oppressive in its open expanses as Let The Right One In was in its dark forests and unlit corners. He simply doesn’t give himself room to breathe in these gorgeous, rural outcroppings of civilization. It’s the plot that drives the thing, and the first two hours fly by. It’s slick in the way Jason Reitman wishes he could be slick, even through clumsy, poorly constructed montages of clue-hunting.

The doe-eyed innocent nestled in the gnarled branches of a family tree filled with greed, abuse, religious zealotry and Nazism, Harriet Vanger cast a pall over the lifetimes of her entire clan by disappearing. Even the Vangers that wanted to forget never could, thanks to the relentless obsession of Uncle Henrik, bent on avenging the death of his only worthy kin. Salander, only tenuously connected to the investigation, clearly feels a similar kinship with Harriet. Both girls are responsible for the carrying of baggage across generations and for the furthering of demons that must be put to rest before anybody might achieve peace.

Even with the predictable twist, the procedural mystery is a fun ride. All the trappings are here: road-tripping to the police stations of remote hamlets, motion sensing security cameras, a supporting ensemble in which everyone is a suspect, searches on both Google and microfilm.

Where the film finally bogs itself down is in its extended dénouement. Notions and ideas best left implied get explained outright and minor subplots get meticulously tied up just because they were major in the book. It’s amazing how a twenty-minute slog to the end credits can kill a movie.

The thorniness of the ending ultimately reveals not that the thing is too long, but rather that it’s too short; all of the minor elements deserve more than they get, especially Lisbeth’s shady shaky past and Mikael’s legal malaise. This is the kind of novel that deserves, if not a miniseries, at the least the three-hour David Fincher treatment. And since that master is allegedly going to helm the American remake, perhaps Larsson’s stories will soon get the cinematic treatment they’ve earned.

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