Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lisbeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.” Now at Manlius Art Cinema, also elsewhere upstate at The Little in Rochester, at Spectrum in Albany, and opened Friday at Cinemapolis in Ithaca.

Film Review #224: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director: Niels Arden Oplev Cast:Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Sven-Bertil Taube

What’s most exhilarating is the moment of “disappointment” when his victims realize they won’t get away, confides the killer, a connoisseur of single malt whiskey and calibrated cruelty, to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). The journalist, with six months at loose ends before he begins prison term for libel, had been hired to unravel the long-ago disappearance of a wealthy industrialist’s favorite niece. “You’ll experience that too,” the killer promises Blomkvist, who’s by now tightly bound, a noose around his neck.

All the carefully built details of Nyqvist’s quiet performance come together here and pay off. We’ve spent much of this film so far watching Blomkvist’s own laser-like watchfulness – as he assembles shreds of evidence on the wall in an ever-spreading collage and stands before it immersed, visits crime scenes and imagines anew the bodies discovered there, and peers into every interaction as if into darkness. Now he watches the killer, struggling to restrain his own animal fear lest it switch off that attention. In really well-done films of this kind, our own suddenly blossoming discovery of crucial secrets – which has been working underground, so to speak – occurs just as the character sees them too, perhaps a magnifying millisecond before. That’s what sent me back to Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) a second time, wanting to see how he did that. While I confess that, among the string of secrets driving this film, I figured out pretty early where that niece went, few films that clock in this long – 152 minutes US, 180 at home in Sweden – are this relentlessly satisfying.

April has been quite a month already for serial killers in the arts, with films like Red Riding Trilogy and The White Ribbon, and Stephen Chalmers’ photo project on mass murderers’ “dump sites” at Light Work Gallery, Unmarked. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes widely to Central New York, with Nyqvist as the disgraced Swedish reporter and, in the title role, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant computer hacker with a taste for Goth who joins his effort. Niels Arden Oplev directed this film, based on the first of Stieg Larsson’s three crime novels about Salandar and Blomkvist.

A good and decent man, the cultured family patriarch hiring Blomkvist in this trilogy’s launch tale – Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) – is nonetheless beset by a nest of viperous relatives, greedy, cruel, some of them with deep-rooted and persisting Nazi ties and other, more private weaknesses. He’s survived these intervening years since the disappearance of his niece Harriet (played in flashback as a sixteen-year-old by Julia Sporre) by his unflagging search to uncover what became of her. As a character, Blomkvist is close to Larsson, also a crusading anti-fascist journalist whose life was often in danger and who wrote these novels to “relax.” In 1995, Swedish neo-Nazis killed eight people, something that Larsson’s investigation uncovered and prompted his founding of the Expo Foundation and its magazine of the same name. Like Red Riding and The White Ribbon (echoed too in Chalmers’ Unmarked project), this film meditates on the ways that power, once corrupt and unleashed – the doing of violence simply because it’s “so easy,” as the killer tells Blomkvist – seeps into every layer of life, large and small.

Larsson’s novels are sometimes called “the Salandar novels” because the figure of Lisbeth is so unlikely and so striking, but also because – as happens perhaps even more vividly on-screen – in the course of the story the weight shifts from Blomkvist to her. It’s Salandar whose background investigation vets Blomkvist for the Vanger job in the first place. It’s Salandar’s own past that comes to illuminate and deepen the mystery of Harriet Vanger, and Salandar’s stance in the world serves as counterpoint to Harriet’s. Noomi Rapace makes a wonderful Salandar and an equal in many intriguing ways to Blomkvist.

In Syracuse last October for a talk about crime procedurals, Washington Post and NPR book reviewer Maureen Corrigan called them “guilty pleasures.” Despite high-brow dismissals, the popular detective novel, she said, “introduced a new subject to literature – they are about thinking.” I think Corrigan’s arguments for these novels as explorations of epistemology – a working out of how we know what we think we know – as well as broader social troubles, apply as well to their robust on-screen incarnations too. It’s no surprise to learn that Corrigan liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In her 2008 review of the novel, which could certainly describe the film equally well, Corrigan wrote that the book was “super-smart, witty, wrenchingly violent in a few isolated passages, and unflinching in its commonsense feminist social commentary.”

All three of the Millennium Trilogy novels (named after Blomkvist’s magazine) are heading our way on-screen. Daniel Alfredson directs the next two (The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest), keeping Nyqvist and Rapace in the lead roles. The novels, first published in 1999, have been tremendously popular and translated into 37 languages. (There’s also an unfinished fourth Millennium novel if Larsson’s still-unsettled estate – he died suddenly in 2004 – lets it loose.) Meanwhile, Oplev’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released here in mid-March, has opened in 20 other countries too. David Fincher also starts shooting an English-language version of The Girl with Dragon Tattoo in October.

Judging from last Friday night’s opening night crowd, Larsson has quite a Central New York following. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as taut a thriller as you’ll find and, after 152 minutes, you’ll understand a little Swedish too.

This review appeared in the regular film column “Make it Snappy” in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the April 22, 2010 issue. See my review of Stephen Chalmers’ “Unmarked” at - click A&E.