"...a knockout piece of entertainment..."

Swedish Neo-Noir Crime Thriller is a Must-See

(072310) There have been mystery films over the years that I love--I don’t think anyone would argue with me naming “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep” and “Chinatown” as three of the very best--but in those cases, especially in regards to the ones that I have just cited, it is the colorful array of characters and dialogue and not, with the possible exception of “Chinatown,” the mystery aspect that makes them so memorable and keeps inspiring audiences to watch them over and over again even when they know the resolution by heart. I have always been fascinated with films in which ordinary people--usually journalists with something to prove--become involved in some kind of labyrinthine case and go about unraveling its secrets by pursuing an endless number of leads and engaging in an exhausting amount of research involving yellowing newspaper clippings, old photographs, microfilms and, if one is especially lucky, microfiche. This may sound unbearably boring to most people but if I had to choose between watching someone in a dusty library cubicle poring through old magazines in an obsessive search for the tiniest clue or a Transformer destroying an entire city block, I, for one, would take the cubicle in a flash.

Sitting down to watch “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the big-screen adaptation of the international best-seller from Swedish author Stieg Larsson, part of a trilogy of novels that didn’t receive publication until after his unexpected death in 2004, and being very familiar with the source material, I expected it to be just another run-of-the-mill novel-to-film adaptation and was both surprised and delighted to find that it was actually an obsessively detailed investigative procedural along the lines of “Zodiac” and “All the President’s Men” and the fact that the story it tells is fictional doesn’t get in the way at all. Even better, it features a pair of intrepid heroes and a gallery of villains, suspects and bystanders as fascinating and colorfully drawn as the ones in the best mystery stories. Combine the two together and the end result is a film that is so fascinating and compulsively watch able that even when it stumbles here and there, most viewers will be too wrapped up in the story to either notice or mind very much.

As the story opens, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is found guilty of libeling a powerful and corrupt Swedish business tycoon--he claims that he was set up but even his colleagues at the magazine that he works for have their doubts and begin distancing themselves from him. While waiting for his prison sentence to begin, he is contacted by another rich and powerful businessman, Henrik Vanger (Sven Bertil-Taube), the former CEO of a vast family-run conglomerate, in the hopes that he will put his investigative skills to use to help unravel a decades-old mystery involving his family. Back in 1966, Henrik’s beloved 16-year-old niece Harriet, who actually babysat Mikael a few times when he was a wee lad, mysteriously vanished and was presumably murdered during a business get-together at the isolated island family compound--although she vanished without a trace, someone, no doubt her killer, has been sending him a pressed flower every year on his birthday as she used to, presumably to taunt him about the horrible crime that they seem to have gotten away with scot-free. At first, Mikael demurs but eventually agrees to look into the case and settles in at the compound to pore through the mountains of documents, photos and ephemera that Henrik has collected over the years in the hopes that his fresh eyes will hit upon something that has otherwise gone overlooked.

While Mikael quickly uncovers a number of nasty secrets involving the Vanger family--a couple of them were members of the Nazi Party back in the day and time hasn’t exactly mellowed many of the others--he can’t quite pull together anything concrete involving Harriet’s disappearance until he inadvertently crosses paths with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a tough-as-nails hacker/research expert with a troubled past of her own. After she manages to crack a mysterious code in Harriet’s diary, Mikael takes on Lisbeth as a partner and with the combination of his old-fashioned investigative skills and her high-tech abilities, they soon manage to uncover a decidedly twisted web involving long-buried family secrets and a string of seemingly unconnected and long-unsolved murders from decades earlier for which Harriet may discovered a common link--a bit of information that may have cost the girl her life and which may cost them the same when it becomes obvious that someone is still willing to kill in order to keep those secrets hidden.

Having read Larsson’s original novel, I can vouch for how accurately it has been translated from the page to the screen—certainly there are elements that have been left out--but taken strictly as a cinematic experience, the whole thing works beautifully. Although the story is as dense and labyrinthine as they come, director Niels Arden Opley recounts it in a slick and stylish manner that takes the time to dig into all the little details and side stories inspired by the central crime without allowing the story to get too bogged down in minutiae. In fact, he relates the material involving the investigation in such an engrossing manner that it has the patina of truth throughout even though the tale it tells is fictional. Opley also shows a keen hand for handling the flashier and more action-driven material as well--there is an extended set-piece about two-thirds of the way through (to say any more would be to say too much) that is so thrillingly conceived and executed that it may be the best such scene to appear in a movie since the Guggenheim shootout in “The International” and this one has a much better film surrounding it.

Aiding immeasurably to the film’s appeal are the two central performances. As the world-weary but supremely dedicated Mikael, Michael Nyqvist does a good job of creating a character that you actually believe is smart and resourceful enough to put the disparate pieces of the complex puzzle together and as the force of nature that is Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace offers up such a strong, sexy and determined presence that watching her kicking ass both literally and from behind her computer is to watch a star being born right before your eyes. Here is a screen couple in which you can genuinely feel the chemistry between them working in every scene--so much so, in fact, that I cannot wait to see how the relationship between their characters develops over the course of the next two films in the trilogy (which, in perhaps the happiest bit of film news so far this year, they have already filmed).

Although not without its flaws--at 152 minutes, it does run a bit long at times (I could have used a little less of the various miseries and brutalities experienced by Lisbeth in the first hour, though I am willing to concede that such scenes may be setting up things that will pay off in the next two installments) and after all of the wild narrative convolutions, the final revelation is just a bit too pat for its own good (you keep expecting one final twist that never occurs)-- “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a knockout piece of entertainment and the only thing that I can see holding it back from being a smash hit in these parts is some audiences may reject it out of hand once they learn that it is in another language. It would be sad if that happened because this is a truly exciting piece of filmmaking and to skip it entirely just to avoid reading a few subtitles strikes me as the height of insanity. Yes, there is already an American remake in the works—David (Se7en, Fight Club) Fincher is set to direct--and this could be the rare remake of a foreign film in which the story is so sound and strong that it survives the transplant. However, as good as that possible version may or may not be, it will be hard-pressed to live up to this one.

The film is playing in limited release in art houses and is available now on DVD. The sequel, “
Girl Who Played With Fire” opened in limited release on July 9th.

Directed by:    Niels Arden Oplev
Written by:    Screenplay by Rasmus Heisterberg II, Nikolaj
 Arcel. From from the novel of the same name by
 Stieg Larsson
Starring:    Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Peter Haber
Released:    Limited release: 3/19/10
 Wide release: 7/09/10
Length:    152 minutes
Rating:    Not Rated
Available On:    At press time the film was playing at local theatres

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