When I see that a film is more than two hours long, I'm usually unhappy at the prospect of pretending to watch it so I can make fun of it in the newspaper. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is so well-constructed and fast-paced that it sped by as rapidly as a two-minute YouTube video of babies laughing at Glenn Beck.
The film (and the novel on which it's based) was released as Men Who Hate Women, or some translation of that, in most of the world. It was thought that English-speaking peoples would be offended at the thought that men might hate women, so instead, the title was made cuter. But, as Shakespeare noted about roses, this doesn't affect the aesthetic enjoyment of the film itself.
The story starts with the verdict in the trial of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who has uncovered a gun-smuggling operation. Unfortunately, when the businessman he's written about sues him, all of Blomkvist's sources immediately vanish, leaving him looking guilty.
Like a Chicago politician, he leaves his job and goes home to wait to be taken into custody. However, in a classic mystery-novel twist, at just this moment, he's contacted by reclusive millionaire Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who, approaching the end of his life, wants answers about a 40-year-old unsolved crime. In 1965, his 14-year-old niece, Harriet, vanished from the remote island where the powerful, wealthy and mostly evil Vanger family lived. Every year since, Henrik has received, from an unknown source, a duplicate of the last gift Harriet gave him: a framed, preserved flower.
So this is the story of an obsessive investigation into the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl four decades ago. And yet, unlike Lovely Bones, which has the same elevator summary, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn't pretend to depth it doesn't have, nor is it lacking intellectual force. And, unlike Lovely Bones, it doesn't glamorize the deaths of young girls. So it's like Lovely Bones if, instead of a gooey, romantic mess made by semi-literates, it were a sharp, insightful and tightly plotted mystery made by hyper-intelligent Scandinavians.
The title change, though, does indicate a respectful nod to the gooey half-wit audience. In fact, Men Who Hate Women would have been a better title. For one thing, there is no "girl" with a dragon tattoo in the film; there's a woman who has a dragon tattoo. And further, the film's interest in murder, relationships and memory is all motivated by the terrible damage done when deranged and evil men are given power over women.
Director Niels Arden Oplev brings this out most strongly in the character of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). While Blomkvist rummages through the dirty laundry of the Vanger family, Salander, a 24-year-old uber-hacker who sports the titular tattoo, is spying on him at his employer's behest. But Lisbeth soon becomes the center of the story as her new parole officer turns out to be subhuman: He takes control of her finances and then demands oral sex in exchange for access to her own money.
The sleazy parole officer is, indeed, yet another man who hates women, or at least a man who shows them the respect that dogs give to sidewalks. Meanwhile, Blomkvist realizes he's being watched. But instead of treating Lisbeth as an enemy, he enlists her to help him solve the old crime, and together, they discover a series of rapes and grisly murders dating back a half-century.
Oplev is painfully smart in his handling of all this. While there are a few brutal sequences, including one horrifying rape, Oplev is careful to include only what's necessary to the plot, and to frame the sequence so that there's no identification with the assailant. Instead, the scene reeks of judgment, in exactly the manner of the best noir movies.
This is thanks in no small part to cinematographers Jens Fischer and Eric Kress, who do a great job of creating information-rich images. Data-heavy visuals are essential to the mystery genre, but Fischer and Kress make this fascinating to look at, while never overemphasizing the clues. In the gray mist of the film's remote Swedish island, bits of knowledge drift through the fog and then return later in center frame to claim their importance.
Oplev makes heavy use of noirish music throughout, but keeps it from being overly intrusive by avoiding melodies; everything is short riffs or extended single notes, played slowly as Michael Nyqvist's expressive face does the hard work of conveying feelings.
So this film is like Sweden, in that I can hardly say enough good things about it, but it might be inappropriate for the slow-witted. Oplev demands attention from his audience, building up small details and weaving together layers of narrative. But he also creates a striking tension and rapid narrative force that draws the audience forward so rapidly that you'll hardly notice the time passing.