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Director Niels Arden Oplev Delivers a Sadistic Take on ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

Director Niels Arden Oplev would probably defend his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as “an unflinching look beneath the placid surface of Swedish society,” or something like that, but what he has made from the source novel of the same name instead brings to mind the book’s original title, Men Who Hate Women. Even if the intent was to expose lurking (or outright) misogyny, and even if at least one rape is satisfyingly avenged, the cumulative result smacks of a certain relish, a super-sadism fest of a movie – none of the mutuality of consenting S/M here – that titillates far more than critiques.

The anti-capitalist politics that infused and drove Steig Larsson’s trilogy of novels, of which Dragon Tattoo is the first, have been leeched out almost entirely, leaving only a nod to the horrors attendant on Nazi philosophy. Oplev has even removed the primary motivation for crusading magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist to take on his private inquiry into a 30–year–old murder: Recently convicted of libel against a corrupt tycoon, Larssen’s Blomkvist is tantalized by a second industrialist’s promises to provide the real irrefutable goods on Mr. Evil – on the condition that Blomkvist find out exactly what happened to the industrialist’s niece when she disappeared from the equivalent of a locked room three decades ago. In the film, Blomkvist just does it for money, and is at loose ends while awaiting his jail sentence.

Olev has a glum eye; this may be the only Swedish pic in which characters constantly complain of the winter cold, and there is little warmth in or among the characters, either. Viewers have no access to the charm which is a signficant Blomkvist trait: In the lead role, actor Michael Nyqvist, who does well within the confines of the reduced character, is not allowed a smile until 28 minutes into the film, and only rarely after that. His lover and partner in the magazine (Erica Berger) is directed to appear tentative and insignificant. And Uncle Industrialist is whitewashed, no longer a questionable and manipulative bully, but now the only good guy in his extended family’s nest of vipers.

Similarly, the sardonic humor in Larrsen’s writing and his characters has been dispatched, now to be found almost exclusively in the quasi-feral behavior of the girl with the titular  tattoo, hacker waif and supposed mental case Lisbeth Salander. Although even under the Goth trappings, she’s rather too beautiful for the part, Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of Salander is on target in fierceness and vulnerability alike, her commitment to the character also demonstrated in having her nose and eyebrows pierced for the role of the metal-studded survivor.   

What should be an intriguing locked-room mystery – Uncle Industrialist’s extended family lived on an island, the only bridge blocked and impassable the day his niece disappeared – creates little interest as to which of the unpleasant older family members must have done the deed. Nor is that interest ratcheted up when Salander, back in the city, discovers the answer in the files of a records room.

In not one but two redundant sequences, Salander hops around throwing her arms up in a Eureka! moment, yelping ”It’s ––, it’s ––!”, completely out of character. Some of that time would have been better spent inserting the smallest of work-arounds to explain why she doesn’t even attempt to call her ally Blomkvist, still on the island, and warn him that he’s in danger. Instead, as bad movie cliche demands, Salander jumps on her motorcycle and zooms through the night to the accompaniment of a thundering melodramatic score.

Even putting aside the evisceration of Larsson’s work, the film on its own is a curdled stew of blood and violence. Three brutal rapes are depicted at copious length, far beyond what is needed to illustrate the victim’s pain, and the mutilated corpses of women become the prime visual motif. Even when shooting a barn stall where another woman was found murdered thirty years ago, Olev superimposes the image of the strangled woman’s body over the hay. And the camera dwells lengthily on gory photo trophies tacked in their multitude to the wall of the serial killer’s private gallery. Overall, so many butchered women’s corpses have not been given so much screen time since that other outstanding work of necro-porn, The Cell.

I would say that author Stieg Larsson must be turning over in his grave, but I’m afraid that might inspire Oplev to dig up the corpse and film it.