Review: Too much in ‘Girl with Dragon Tattoo’ |

Review: Too much in ‘Girl with Dragon Tattoo’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Music Box FilmsNoomi Rapace stars in the Swedish crime mystery "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," opening Friday in Aspen.

The Swedish film “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” is adapted from a 480-page novel by the late Stieg Larsson, so it comes as no surprise that the story is complex and multilayered. The film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, involves not only the murder of a teenage girl, Harriet, but the series of earlier murders that she apparently knew about. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is set in the present, but there are multiple additional time frames the viewer needs to wrap his head around: the time of Harriet’s murder, in the mid-’60s, and the earlier murders, which spanned from the 1930s into the 1950s.

The pair of detectives pressed into service to investigate Harriet’s murder are not police partners, which would have been a relatively simple construct. One is a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (and to make matters even slightly tougher, at least for someone reviewing the film, he is played by an actor named Michael Nyqvist). The other is a young woman, Lisbeth Salander (played, thankfully, by an actor named Noomi Rapace), who is an expert at online research, unearthing the kind of information that certain people would rather remain earthed. The film goes into considerable backstory on both of these characters: Mikael is an ambitious and well-known journalist who has recently been convicted of libel, for wrongfully accusing a prominent businessman of financial improprieties. Lisbeth, who as a child had been abused by her father, is an ex-convict, bisexual, quiet in the extreme – and a total bad-ass. With a big dragon tattoo down her back. All of this is not merely background; these are live issues: Lisbeth is still struggling to keep unwanted men out of her body, and Mikael is staring at a six-month prison sentence.

Harriet’s murderer, we are informed early on, is almost certainly a member of the wealthy Vanger family. But for the viewer, that doesn’t really narrow things down; it only complicates the issue. Now we have multiple Vangers – some ancient, others merely old; most of them suspicious, others downright nasty – to keep tabs on.

The evidence that Mikael and Lisbeth comb through is old photos, financial records and journals, as well as newer materials that Lisbeth finds on the Internet. Eventually it covers all the walls of the cabin on the Vanger estate that is their headquarters.

The success of “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo” hinges on how well director Oplev manages this heap of information. He engages in worthy battle, and gains small victories, the most notable being that the story never falls apart entirely. But in the end, he is overwhelmed. Even at nearly two and a half hours, it feels as if the plot points are merely being touched on, rather than fully explored. A topic like anti-Semitism is one of several topics raised, then basically discarded.

In at least one way, it’s a shame that Oplev apparently felt compelled to squeeze in most every one of the novel’s angles – including the sexual coupling of Lisbeth and Mikael, which amounted to nothing at all. Lisbeth is a keg of dynamite as a character, burning on the inside and constantly in danger of exploding.

Audiences haven’t seen the last of her. Lisbeth has multiple returns to the screen scheduled – in the Swedish films “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” adapted from the rest of Larsson’s trilogy (and both with Daniel Alfredson replacing Oplev in the director’s seat); and in an American remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” scheduled for release in 2012.

Let’s hope those films strike a better balance between complexity and focus.