For such a plot-laden film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's story isn't all that gripping. Though seemingly meant to genuinely unsettle us, it too often feels like little more than an exercise in paint-by-numbers. Take its premise, for instance. A falsely convicted journalist whose name has been dragged through the mud gets a chance to redeem himself and make a few bucks in the process; a family with much to hide on a secluded island adds layers of intrigue; alternative-looking love interest helps everything fall into place and the skeletons come out of the closet one by one.
The murder mystery that serves as Dragon's catalyst is fine as a starting point, but director Niels Arden Oplev seems less interested in turning the late Stieg Larsson's 2004 novel into a resonant look at the innate darkness of his native Sweden than an atrocity exhibition a few rungs higher up the ladder than Saw. To this end, there are liberal doses of graphic violence, three rape scenes that add nothing to the plot—and far too little in the way of character development—to justify their inclusion in the first place (to say nothing of their excessive length), and an undercurrent of Nazism lest we forget that even a socialist haven like Sweden has its dark underbelly.
Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), the girl of the film's title, stands out immediately, but only outwardly. A highly-skilled hacker with Goth sensibilities, she's more than capable of defending herself against the numerous men who try to harm her sexually and physically—which is lucky, since there seem to be so many of them. Unfortunately, Lisbeth does little that isn't in keeping with the way she presents herself to the world: she looks like a tough chick with no intention of taking anyone's shit, and acts accordingly. From her piercings and haircut to her motorcycle, she's more stereotypical than she is distinctive. Only during the few scenes where Lisbeth shows even an iota of vulnerability did I find myself especially interested in her; these moments, though worthy, are few and far between.
Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), on the other hand, is a bit of a cipher. The character seems to have been painted in such neutral colors as to never allow us a close look. Even when faced with mortal danger, Mikael simply doesn't seem too bothered—and not in a James Bond kind of way, either. At the onset, it seems as though his immersion into the investigation of his babysitter's disappearance almost 40 years earlier will lead him, Zodiac-style, into an obsession that reveals as much about him as it does the crime.
Not so. We never really learn what makes Mikael tick or, for that matter, why we're meant to care about him. He isn't so much unlikeable as he is unknowable, which is odd given that, despite its title, Dragon seems to be more about him than it does Lisbeth—she may be the film's lynchpin, but he is its backbone. (And, on that note, why name the movie after a tattoo that has literally no implications on anything other than itself? Rather than distinguish Lisbeth, it typifies her, not least because we're never even told of its significance; instead, we merely see a few brief glimpses of the tattoo, something seemingly done to amplify its mystery but with the converse effect of underscoring how unimportant it truly is.)
At a full two and a half hours long, the film's pacing becomes an issue as well. What starts as a slow burn turns, in the last 15 minutes or so, into one apparently revelatory plot point thrown at us after another. It doesn't make you look at your watch so much as wonder why Lisbeth's rape scenes take up nearly as much screentime as does the big reveal for which we've already waited two hours. Dragon isn't a bad film by any stretch, but rather one whose sum fails to exceed its parts.