One of the main themes of the instant Swedish classic from 2009, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is, “Everybody’s got secrets.” It’s also the personal aphorism of its central character – the young, mysterious, professional hacker, Lisbeth Salander, aka, Wasp. Her enigmatic persona is instantly established the moment she appears onscreen, creating an indelible image of nose rings and scowl as she takes a seat in the spectator’s section of a courtroom to hear the announcement of a verdict. The defendant is Mikael Blomkvist, a publisher convicted of liable for falsely accusing a business tycoon of corruption. Lisbeth is concluding an investigation into Mikael’s integrity on behalf of a third party. “He’s clean,” she later tells her employer. She believes Mikael has been set up. He is completely ignorant of her existence.
Based on her assessment, Mikael is employed by Henrik Vanger, the wealthy uncle of Harriet, a girl presumed murdered some forty years earlier. Mikael has six months to discover her killer before he begins serving his deferred prison sentence. He still doesn’t know about Lisbeth, who takes an interest in him from a distance. When she finally makes her existence known by emailing him a vital clue, he recruits her to help him, creating one of cinema’s most memorable crime-solving duos.
As a mystery, the plot is fairly typical. Clues are followed, false leads are exposed, and justice prevails. But as the great film critic Andrew Sarris once noted, “The art of the cinema is… not so much what as how.” It’s on this basis that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo distinguishes itself. The striking compositions by cinematographers Jens Fischer and Eric Kress are expressive and varied. Lighting ranges from naturalistic to subtly expressionistic, and different hues are used to convey both physical exteriors and interior emotions. Blue, for example, is symbolic of an icy winter locale as well as the cool reception of an unwelcome investigation. Bridges are a recurring motif – the macro counterpart to the links discovered through meticulous sleuthing. Forests and trees, the former being imperceptible from the latter, correlate to the bigger picture that Mikael and Lisbeth are too close to see – at first!
The casting department deserves special praise for finding two actors that so effortlessly create a strong and believable chemistry between the most unlikely of collaborators – a conservative forty-something year old investigative journalist and a damaged twenty-four year old anarchist. But as good as the late, great Michael Nyqvist was in his portrayal of Mikael, it’s the star-making performance of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth that grabs our attention in every scene she’s in. She’s a chain-smoking, pierce-faced Goth with a fierce dragon tattoo taking up her entire back, and it’s not hyperbole to say that her striking looks and no-nonsense attitude make for one of the most memorable characters ever committed to celluloid.
As a thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ranks among the very best. Its intricate plot threads and memorable characters capture and reward our attention, right down to the final scene when we’re made privy to something that only Mikael and Lisbeth know. It’s a supremely satisfying ending – everyone did have secrets, and now we’ve got one too!
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski