Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a film poised to have it both ways: a harrowing psycho-sexual drama and a pulp suspenser, taken from the first in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy (the author having tragically died before his manuscripts saw publication). In the end, it's impossible to be both at the same time but, like the recent Shutter Island, while it might not be entirely successful, it's a gripping (and often disturbing) ride.

Also like Shutter Island, it moves unpredictably from one mood and vignette to the next, presumably a result of the book having been culled and compressed into a two hour timeframe. What it does have over Scorsese's effort is likely the breakout female performance of 2010: Noomi Rapace as the girl of the title, wounded, witty, sensual, haunted hacker Lisbeth Salander, the film's beating (and often beaten) dark heart. Brilliantly edgy, Rapace is very much a female hero for the digital age, appropriate given her character's profession.

The plot is set in motion in classic detective fashion with clues piling on each other and characters pitted against situations that have much wider implications. Author and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is on the losing end of a court case that saw him make libellous comments in his new book about the head of a powerful corporation; unseen from the sidelines, Lisbeth is observing Mikael's computer activities; and ultimately, Mikael himself is employed by the uncle of a girl who went missing 40 years ago. Suspecting foul play within the decadent and corrupt Vanger family, Mikael and Lisbeth must team up to crack the mystery.

Against this, the seemingly incongruous scenes of horrific sodomy and rape between Lisbeth and her sleazy, newly employed legal guardian may appear entirely gratuituous, belonging to another film entirely. Yet it's the digging beneath the surface towards the finale that unveils a disturbing culture of widespread sexual violence that has been set in motion with these dreadful scenes from the start. Still, their presence alongside the casual genre staples of detective fiction guarantees the film a somewhat uneasy mood, caught between flippant and subtle, horrific and throwaway.

Likewise when the culprit behind it all is ultimately unveiled, it feels like it has crashed into us before we've had a chance to drink in the seductively dour Swedish atmosphere. The somewhat lopsided sexual politics are also, outside Rapace's performance, as incisive as a smack in the face, but it's certain to keep one guessing, is far more intelligent than standard and thank heavens the gender-centered thriller has finally made a comeback. Make no mistake: Noomi Rapace's terrific performance is the reason why we stay for the duration, the knockout final image of whom redefines the word sexy for a whole new generation.

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