There’s so much that could have ended up on the editing floor of Niels Arden Oplev’s two-and-a-half hour The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an adaptation of the award-winning crime novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. We could start with the tattooed girl herself. Or the Nazis. Or the rape scenes. Or the girl’s sodomy-revenge. All of this extra stuff (probably more coherent and relevant to the novel) distracts from what could have been a gripping and entertaining Agatha Christie mystery. The film is about Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who is hired by the 83-year-old head of the wealthy industrialist family, The Vangers, to solve a 50-year-old mystery: who murdered the pretty young blond, Harriet Vanger? That’s enough for a movie, but Oplev’s adaption dwells and stumbles, taking wild stabs at something deeper that what is actually there, leaving the film a jumbled, overloaded mess.
We start with a shot of Henrik Vanger, the patriarch of a wealth family that lives on a remote island in northern Sweden. He is hunched over his desk weeping over a framed dried flower. Cut to Stolkholm, where Oplev starts telling two parallel stories. There’s Blomkvist, a journalist who has been convicted of fabricating evidence for a story about a wealthy banker, though we are told he has been set-up. And Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the dragon girl, who has punked-out black hair, piercings, and a spiked collar. Salander is a professional hacker who gathers information for a security company. The Vangers have hired the company to gather background on Blomkvist. Henrik wants to hire the journalist for the six months before he has to serve his jail sentence to try to find out what happened to his favored niece, Harriet, who disappeared in 1960. The disappearance happened at a moment when the island was cut-off from the mainland, and so the murderer, Henrik deduces, must have been on the island – must have been part of the family. It has haunted him nearly his entire life.
Though the trail has been cold for half a century, Blomkvist immediately begins piecing together clues, thanks to his nifty Mac and Photoshop, which he uses to zoom in on and clear-up old photos. As the investigation progresses, we occasionally get to watch scenes in which dragon girl is rapped by her parole officer (oh, she’s been in jail — she has a back story). But Salander is not to be messed with. She films the rape with a hidden camera and then returns to torture and blackmail her attacker. Hurray! But why are we watching this? Apparently, this is supposed to lay the ground for latter happenings, or develop her character, only it doesn’t really. It does add to the general nasty, dark vision of the world Oplev is working with here, a place filled with long -faced Scandinavians and vindictive family members that almost seem like spoofs of Bergman caricatures. Ah, those backstabbing, miserable Swedes and their religious fetishes, always up to the rape and the murder.
Back to Blomkvist, who gets an email one day from Salander. She has been monitoring his investigation from afar by hacking into the journalist’s computer and is now infatuated with Blomkvist (maybe this happened when we weren’t looking). She has figured out a vital clue that really heats up the trail. Nothing left for Blomkvist to do but scoop up Salander in Stockholm and bring the storylines together. The two team up and get to the bottom of it all.
Don’t get me wrong, the mystery itself, a harrowing trail of ritualistic murder and incest, is as engrossing as a good Christie plot. But the budding relationship between our two sleuths is distracting, to say the least. I understand Blomkvist, who likes the cute, young Salander’s spunk and anarchistic streak. But why Salander is falling for Blomkvist is anybody’s guess. He doesn’t rape her, which in the context of Salander’s back story seems like a big plus. As a result, she throws herself at him for some casual sex. And what’s the deal with the dragon tattoo? We see it on her back during loves scenes, but the film doesn’t seem to take notice of it. We’re left to think that it is a shouting metaphor: She’s like a dragon! She’s the spirit of revenge! There’s a lot of audience head scratching throughout, all the way to part where we discover the Vangers are a bunch of aging Nazis. Now we can start giggling.