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How I Fell in Love with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This week in new box office releases left the average moviegoer with few choices. Tom Cruise’s latest disaster opened to the tune of $20.5 million. A few more people checked out the SNL reunion plus Kevin James, a.k.a. Grownups, but it was obvious by the response to the controversial Twitter Adgate that this community has absolutely no interest in that one. This severely limited my choices to bring you a quality film review on what I hoped would be a quality film. In light of this, I decided to visit my local art cinema and while the film I chose is not a new release – in fact, this film will be released on DVD and Bly-ray on July 6th – it is a quality film.

So, let’s make with the culture.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Män som hatar kvinnor, is the first film in a trilogy based on the novels by the late Swedish author, Stieg Larsson. Before I get into the plot of this film, I need to mention the reason I was drawn to it. My most recent brush with Swedish film came with 2008’s Let the Right One In. If you have not seen this film, stop reading now and go watch it. Let the Right One In has given the movie going world the BEST incarnation of vampires in recent years. I was hopeful that my track record with Swedish films would continue along the same trajectory and if it was not a good film, at least I could imagine that every character was related to the Swedish Chef.

Released in Denmark in February of last year, this film took its sweet-ass time getting to American audiences, premiering at the Miami Film Festival in March of this year. Directed by someone you’ve never heard of and starring a bunch of people that look vaguely familiar, but you have never seen, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist, portrayed by Michael Nyqvist, a journalist who is convicted of libel at the onset of the film and sentenced to a short prison stay. Blomkvist is given six months until he must report to serve his prison term. At the same time, we meet the punkish Lisbeth Salander, played by the haunting Noomi Rapace, an antisocial, tattooed and pierced girl who knows how to get information (read – brilliant hacker). Salander has been investigating Blomkvist and believes that he was set up.

Blomkvist is hired by the aging Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, Henrik’s niece. Harriet was sixteen when she disappeared about forty years ago, and Vanger is convinced that a member of his family is the guilty party. As if being four decades removed from the crime wasn’t enough, the circumstances surrounding the date further complicate matters: the entire Vanger family was on the island for a board meeting of the Vanger companies, so they are all suspects. There was a Children’s Day celebration in town and the bridge that connects the island with the mainland was closed for several hours due to an accident. Blomkvist agrees to spend the six months before his prison sentence working for Mr. Vanger to investigate the crime. Vanger provides Blomkvist with a place to stay on the island, some of the back story on the Vanger family and boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, photographs and Harriet’s personal belongings.

This film doesn’t break any new ground in storytelling, but it does is develop characters without the need to spoon feed the audience every hardship they have faced, which is a departure from many Hollywood releases. From my limited exposure, it seems that Swedish filmmakers have a knack for making a character out of the physical setting. Director Niels Arden Oplev brings to life the fictional and desolate Hedeby Island and is adept at utilizing all of the limitations of such a setting.

Salander either feels some sort of kinship with Blomkvist or is intrigued by the puzzle of Harriet’s disappearance and points Blomkvist in the right direction by hacking his files and e-mailing them back with her notes, before eventually joining him in his investigation. Together the unlikely pair discovers some well-hidden secrets about the Vanger family. Like any crime drama, the closer we are to answers, the closer our heroes are to danger, but Oplev keeps the audience guessing, even after the mystery is solved.

I have omitted most of Salander’s story, purposefully, because each element combines to make a believable and likable character. I will mention that Salander is on some type of probation and this element drives the plot to a point, but this arc is eventually wrapped up in an intense and disturbing scene that shows that Salander will never be a victim. Salander’s actions deepen her character and make one want to learn more about her past. The great news is that the two sequels deal, at least in part, with Salander’s past.

Oplev gives audiences a film that may not feel right to Americans at first, but one that ends up being more than a breath of fresh air amidst the normal big budget, big market fare that usually chokes us all summer. Oplev shows that, given good source material, films can be made for a fraction of the cost of any Hollywood release. This foreign gem that only cost $7 million to make is one that will stick with me, unlike… what was that last one I watched?

Out of $10, how much would I pay to see this one again? $9, but I’ll probably just wait another week, buy it on Blu-ray and await the sequel the following week.

Jay (J.C.) Fralick is the host of The Drivecast
The co-host of the Wanna Watch a Movie Podcast
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25 comments

  • This movie will also be available on netflix instant watch next Tuesday. I have not seen the movie, but I have read the book. It had some poorly written spots, but I think that is the translator’s fault and not the writers. Overall it was good and keep me entertained. I look forward to watching this next week, to see how it compares.

  • Great review!!!

    “Let the Right One In” was a fantastic movie. I have realized, by taking a chance on foreign films, or even independent films, that more often than not, I’m usually presently surprised about the caliber of the story-telling, writing or character development. I’m sure it’ll be the case with “…Dragon Tattoo”. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I’m looking forward to checking it out.

    @swagers: I’ll look for it on Netflix – thanks for the tip.

  • Excellent review of an excellent movie. Can’t wait for the sequels – in the sub -title versions – after the fantastic job done by the Swedish filmmakers and actors -I’ll lskip the talked about Hollywood remakes.

  • I hate to be the clichéd guy who says “the book was better”… but the book was better. (Although you don’t have to get through 150 pages of Vanger family genealogy in the movie.) The movie was good, but it kind of annoyed me that I was semi-spoiled for something that happens about 85% of the way through the second book (they showed the what but not the who).

  • A good portion of the crew was danish because the director was danish.

    Niels Arden Oplev.

    And bigger care was made on the first one always intended for a theatrical release whereas the sequels was done by another director and intended for a miniseries on tv, but after the succes of the first one also got a theatrical release in tighter cuts than the tv versions.

    The sequels not quite as good in many crititcs opinion in Denmark (wonder why, when it was a swedish director).

    Also the whole miniseries has just been shown on different scandinavian tv channels (Public Service and tax payer funded of course in socialist scandinavia ;) ) containing the movies split in 2 episode so 6 in total with a lot more of the books material in it.

    The same cast of course.

  • Good stuff!

    I loved this book, though it was a bit think in spots. The movie was pretty excellent though and they couldn’t have found anyone better than Noomi Rapace to fill in for Lizebth. She came across exactly what I pictured when reading the book!

  • I’ve not seen any Swedish cinema that I can recall off the top of my head, but based on your writing, and recommendation, I’ll have to give both “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, and “Let the Right One In” a shot. Thanks for choosing something that is different than the norm. It is too easy to get burned out saying “Oh, great..another mindless Tom Cruise flick”.

    Thanks again.

  • I prefer older movies to new ones, and a good story over visual effects. I don’t know foreign films well but would not balk at seeing an intriguing crime drama over a romantic film, but maybe that’s the nerd in me. Thanks for a good recommendation beyond the over priced “fast food” films we see so much of.

  • What an excellent review! I have not seen the movie nor read the book, but have definitely added “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to my list of books/movies to check out. The last movie that I paid to watch was “A Diary of a Whimpy Kid” which was funny (saw it with my daughter), but it is now time to see something that sounds very intriguing!
    Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Great review! Can’t wait for it to come out on DVD/Blu Ray. I already have it in my queue. I will also try to read the books. I, also, am apprehensive for the American remake.

  • Great review! Mind you, that’s coming from a guy that hasn’t seen the movie, but I must say Jay’s writing makes me want to read. Used to watch a lot of foreign films before I all but destroyed my eyesight reading subtitles. I am intrigued, and can honestly say I’d venture to see this film. More importantly, looking for this review re-introduced me to the Chris Hardwick I had forgotten (sorry Chris, it’s not you; it’s me). I’m hooked. Keep ‘em comin’ Jay!

  • I am so excited to see this movie when it comes out on DVD. I read the first book and am halfway through the second.

    I saw Let the Right One In, too, and that movie was absolutely amazing. I highly recommend it.

    Another Swedish film that is amazing is called “Evil.” It was recommended to me, and I LOVED it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338309/

  • Thanks for posting this review. My girlfriend finished the book last week and wanted to see the movie. I wasn’t really enthusiastic about seeing it until I read this review yesterday. Within minutes, I bought tickets for the evening showing at the Clay on Fillmore (San Francisco). While I was not prepared for some of the more adult scenes, I was blown away by the great performances (especially by Noomi Rapace) and left the theater completely satisfied. This film was definitely a refreshing cinematic experience and helped redeem a year that has seen a deluge of really bad cash-grab franchises that seek more to take our money than truly entertain and add value to our lives.

  • I’m glad this is more than just another hot tattooed pierced chick. It seems like many of the foreign films that break the surface of our culture are pretty well done – but you never know until someone you trust reviews it for you! (I need this because as a parent of a 3 year old, my time is extremely limited).
    We’ll give it a shot.

  • I had the day off today and decided to strech beyond the norm by catching this show at the matinee. I enjoyed it as well. Thought it did drag out a little, but worth the time. Great movie night idea with the dvds.

    Keep thinking outside the box, I enjoy the diversity.