The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

On DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Much to my amusement, the movie’s English subtitles conspicuously neglect to translate the title card. That is, of course, because the book that English-speaking readers know as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published in Sweden as Män som hatar kvinnor—literally, Men Who Hate Women. Sure, American publishers have been known to replace quirky, distinctive non-English titles with dull, generic titles, but in this case, I think they did author Stieg Larsson a favor. Men Who Hate Women is a hilariously unsubtle and thus hilariously appropriate label for the grim, plodding work—or at least the Swedish film adaptation of it. (The inevitable American version is in production now.) I admit, I haven’t read the wildly successful book or its two sequels, but having seen the movie (which is, to my knowledge, scrupulously faithful to Larsson’s bestseller), I don’t feel any need to do so.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens not with our titular girl but with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who is hired by wealthy Martin Vanger (Peter Haber) to investigate the probable murder of Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared from the family estate some forty years earlier at the age of sixteen. Blomkvist accepts the case, and his progress is tracked, in secret, by antisocial tattooed hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who had been hired to do a background check on Blomkvist and who basically never disconnected from remote access of his computer once the job was done. Eventually, Lisbeth gets in touch with Blomkvist, and together they uncover the Vanger family’s twisted secrets and Harriet’s fate.

Lisbeth’s interest in the Vanger investigation is not idle. Harriet’s disappearance is linked to multiple examples of horrific sexualized violence, and Lisbeth, like seemingly every other woman in the movie, is also a victim of horrific sexualized violence. What makes Lisbeth special, though, is her inclination and ability to retaliate in kind. When attacked—in an assault depicted in excruciating detail—Lisbeth bides her time and avenges herself—in another assault depicted in similarly excruciating detail. To some extent, I suppose, this is empowering: Lisbeth cannot be intimated; she’s strong; she fights back. And yet it’s terribly depressing, as well. Lisbeth might be an aggressive victim rather than a passive victim, but her victimhood still defines her completely. She has “survived” only as a joyless, paranoid recluse, all but incapable of trusting someone or allowing herself to love. And in terms of drama, she’s a static character, not a human being but the mythical Nemesis personified. Rapace plays her with compelling intensity, but the performance doesn’t go anywhere. There’s nowhere to go.

As for Blomkvist, he’s kind of dull, which isn’t Nyqvist’s fault. The character spends most of the movie looking dour and pensive and making depressing comments about pervasive violence against women and the cruelties of capitalism. (Seriously, how did this book become a hit in the United States, where even the mildest of social programs are condemned as evil, evil socialism?) The mystery itself is convoluted, pointlessly tied to random verses from the Book of Leviticus (nothing good ever comes from Leviticus). It’s a bit like an overlong episode of Law and Order: SVU. It even exudes that same icky primness, aghast at the sexual violence it depicts and kinda sorta titillated by it, too.

Tattoo is a well-made movie, so far as that goes—decent performances, an artily reserved aesthetic, remarkably brisk pacing for a story in which the characters must spend an inordinate amount of time rustling through archives and staring at computer screens—but the utterly pedestrian storytelling doesn’t justify the unrelenting bleakness of it all. God knows I’d never argue that a book or a movie has to be perky and pretty, but I do think you have to earn your darkness with more than self-seriousness. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has little more than self-seriousness to offer.