Mystery films haven't been consistently enjoyable since the days of film noir. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo offers a modern re-interpretation of the genre, keeping the red herrings and fake-outs that make it so great but give it a much-needed update.
Unfortunately, the film may leave a sour taste in many audiences' mouths due to its frank, brutal and near-exploitative depictions of rape and sexual abuse of women.
Adapted from the Stieg Larsson novel of the same name, Girl with the Dragon Tatto starts out with journalist Mikael Blomkvist's conviction of libel against the powerful Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. With nothing left to lose, he takes a 40-year cold case from the fantastically rich Henrik Vanger to find the person who murded his niece, Harriet. Along the way the mysterious Lisbeth Salander, a damaged genius computer hacker with a photographic memory, becomes fascinated by Blomkvist's libel case and slowly helps with his murder investigation.
The greatest strength of the film is that it wants to make a point. Girl focuses on and explores how men of power, in this case the wildly rich business elite, abuse and manipulate women to achieve their own nefarious ends. Given the Swedish title -- Man Som Hatar Kvinnor (translated as "Men Who Hate Women") -- it's abundantly clear what topic the film tackles head on.
At the same time, the film's depictions of rape can be seen as exploitative due to the visceral way they're shot. Three people walked out of the screening during the three-minute scene, which is understandable given how absolutely brutal it is.
Lisbeth, after having her legal guardianship moved to the boorish Nils Bjurman, is forced to go to him any time she needs money. Her Macbook breaks after she's violently attacked by a group of drunken louts in a subway station and the vicious Bjurman says that "he'll be nice if she's nice" -- and then proceeds to force her to perform oral sex.
It gets worse, though, when she realizes she needs more money. Bjurman rapes her in a way that grabs at the heart and doesn't let go. Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth, gives an especially virtuoso performance throughout the scene. Her eyes tell the story -- scared and horrified, but with a tinge of knowing regret. Her howls echoed through the theatre and made everything that much more uncomfortable.
While she gets a modicum of vengeance in the end -- her job at a security company affords her the opportunity to tape the rape -- it's still deeply troubling. Even though it fits in perfectly with the overall theme of the film, there is definitely a case to be made that it doesn't need to be that long.
The scene is a black mark that, unfortunately, will keep a fairly significant proportion of the audience away, which is deeply unfortunate as it's an otherwise fantastic film.
Despite its two-and-a-half hour length, the plot speeds along with little in the way of excess fat. Every scene is important, either to the film or the greater trilogy. Rapace's performance is a fascinating portrayal of a young female genius whose entire life has consisted of sexual abuse -- there are many scenes of her simply smoking a cigarette, and she manages to make them effortlessly cool.
It's unfortuante, then, that one scene will ruin the film. It deserves to be seen -- Larsson's books are incredibly popular due to their taut plotting and excellent characters. The film adaptation continues that tradition, and is a must-see for genre fans and those with a strong stomach.