(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
There’s been a lot of buzz recently about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. People are talking about the way the complex mystery of a neo-Nazi serial killer is solved, and especially about Noomi Rapace’s mesmerizing performance. Since she is so good as a younger, punkier version of Angelina Jolie, her next picture will probably be a big-budget Hollywood feature.
If you were to summarize the movie for a review, you would say that it’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced financial journalist played by Michael Nygvist, who is hired to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a woman 40 years ago. During his investigation he meets the Noomi Rapace character, Lisbeth Salander, a goth computer hacker with issues of her own, and together they solve the mystery. All this is pretty straightforward. What people aren’t talking about is how unusual the movie is because it tells two stories that are loosely connected in the middle, but not in the beginning and not in the end.
His story is straightforward enough; he’s hired to solve the mystery, and does so. We learn very little about him, his past, his parents, and so forth. He seems like a nice enough guy, sort of a Scandinavian Colin Firth. That’s not true of her, and we get enough information scattered about in various scenes that we can reconstruct her life. When she is growing up, her father abuses her mother. When she is about ten, she douses him with gasoline, and then sets him afire. For this she is put in a psychiatric ward, and is now on probation. After her probation officer forces her to give him oral sex, she goes to his apartment. He handcuffs her to the bed and rapes her. What we don’t know as we watch this violent scene—and what her probation officer certainly doesn’t know—is that it’s a setup, astonishing as that might seem. This is surely the first time in movie history when a woman entraps a man into raping her. Lisbeth has entrapped him because she knows that she is recording the whole awful scene on her computer. (This is a very computer-driven movie.) Armed with this evidence, she returns to his apartment, rapes him with a large dildo, and tattoos “I AM A SADISTIC PIG AND A RAPIST” on his stomach.
And there’s more. Once she identifies the killer, she rushes into his dungeon and whacks him up side the head with a golf club (which appears out of nowhere, incidentally), and does so just in time to save the journalist’s life. The killer flees in his SUV, but he’s pretty badly hurt, and can’t drive well. She follows him when he goes off the road, and his SUV turns over several times. He is injured and pleads for help; she just stands there and watches him burn when the SUV catches fire.
Then she hacks into the files of the publishing company that sued the journalist. After she gives him the files (thereby setting him free), she takes copies of the files and confronts the head of the publishing company. She extorts a large sum of money from him; he commits suicide. (All this happens off-screen.) Finally, she walks off into the sunset—literally. In the last shot we see her get out of a limousine somewhere in the Cayman Islands.
If the ending sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because both the movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the original novel on which it was based derive in one way or another from Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 movie. In it an amoral woman, Matty Walker (played by Kathleen Turner), entraps a seedy lawyer, Ned Racine (played by William Hurt), into killing her husband. At the end he takes the heat (quite literally) for it, and she takes the money and runs…to the Cayman Islands.
Girl is way more violent than Body Heat, though. Here’s the body count: she kills one man (her father), tortures one, allows one to burn to death, and causes a fourth to commit suicide. Three men dead, one maimed.
Lisbeth’s story is so intense and so violent that neither Rasmus Heisterberg, who wrote the script, nor Stieg Larsson, who wrote the original novel, could bring her story together with the journalist’s story and create a single plot line. As a result we have an exceptionally intense version of the basic plot line of a movie such as The Electric Horseman, whose plot can be summed up like this: boy meets girl; boy and girl have an affair; boy and girl part on good terms. In Girl, boy and girl, who have radically different personalities and life experiences, join forces for about the middle two thirds of the movie, and not for all of that. They probably aren’t onscreen together for more than 45 minutes of this long movie. She does save his life, though, with the aforementioned golf club.
What it comes down to is that the boy’s story and the girl’s story are so different in tone that nobody could bring them together. The boy’s story is a more or less familiar one in which an investigator (a reporter, a lawyer, or a detective) is given a mystery and ultimately solves it without resorting to violence. This is the stuff that’s made Law & Order so successful.
Her story, though, is the story of the avenging angel, and in America it goes back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, from 1947. In this classic hard-boiled novel the appropriately named Mike Hammer hits people first and asks questions later. I, the Jury enjoyed great popularity in its day and has been made into a movie several times.
Although there are still plenty of tough guy detectives, nobody is writing pure hard-boiled detective stories any more. The latest, and maybe last, version of Mike Hammer in America was Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24. Although the tough guy detective who’s judge, jury, and executioner doesn’t work for men any more, Noomi Rapace’s tough girl detective/computer hacker is so spectacular that we may see a good deal more or her.
So what we have in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a shotgun marriage of a television story and a hard-boiled detective story with some kinks thrown in. It’s this combination of two very different kinds of stories that makes the movie so long—and so distinctive.Powered by Sidelines