My Ten Cents On: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson, the writer of the Millenium Trilogy, was indeed a true artist. He was an artist in that his works only gained him popularity AFTER his death. He died in 2004, and it wasn’t until his books were turned into movies in 2009 did he get international acclaim. And though I had heard of the book before, I never actually went and picked it up. Then two weeks ago, I watched this movie, and now, I still believe Stieg Larsson is a true artist, just for an altogether different reason.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first novel of a set of books that follows a girl named Lisbeth Salander, a genius computer hacker with a tortured past, currently working for a private organization. She becomes enamored by Mikael Blumkvist, an investigative journalist whom she is made to cyber-stalk. When Blumkvist is hired to solve the disappearance of a young girl several years ago, Lisbeth decides to aid him, and they work together to unravel a secret that has lain dormant for over 40 years.

But I haven’t read the book (yet, I will, promise!), so I’ll review the Swedish movie.

+ Lisbeth Salander

I’ve come across my fair share of interesting characters, and Lisbeth Salander is one of them. She is such an enigma, with an extreme, but not impossible to find, personality. She’s quiet, full of piercings, and has a huge dragon tattoo on her back, and throughout the movie, you’re never quite told why. The film takes this one step further by fleshing her out by seemingly unrelated actions, instead of telling you about it. I really really love it when movies do that.

A lot of movies introduce characters through a brief monologue, or through some speech or other, setting you up with: “He’s a man who lost his family, and is on the path of revenge,” or “Ever since he was a kid, he had the gift to talk to animals.” And that’s totally cool by me. When you tell a story you do have to introduce your characters, and at the end of the day, movies are still stories. I just love when someone breaks the norm and characterized people much more subtly. My favorite example is this scene from the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic Pulp Fiction. These two guys, Jules and Vincent, are riding along down a road, and they’re talking about Vincent‘s trip to Amsterdam. That’s it. They just talk about that thing, and yet this conversation tells so much about who they are as people. They’re good friends, they’re down to earth (since they have a thing for burgers from McDonald’s and Burger King), and they’re laid back kind of guys. Yet, they’re in matching black suits, which means they work for an organization (probably doing dirty jobs), and they’re cool with it. All that from one scene. This was what Tarantino was all about, the dialogue, not the violence as some quick-to-judge people would assert.

This character is so amazing! No wonder Adam Lambert patterned his style after her.

Anyway, going back, Lisbeth Salander was depicted in a similar manner. No one ever really talks about her backstory, minus a couple of flashbacks that aren’t that coherent, and yet through her actions, you learn a lot about the character. Kudos to Stieg Larsson for creating her. But when it comes to movies, that’s only part of it. A great character needs to be performed by a great actor as well.

I don’t get the chance to see too many stars flare up into existence, but I did so in this movie. Noomi Rapace, the girl who plays Lisbeth, delivered a riveting and chilling performance. I didn’t have to read the book to see the psychological torture, which looks like its been carried over from childhood. She played a strong and independent woman, who seemed hardened from all emotion, yet this outer shell was protecting a very fragile soul at her very core. I saw her for five minutes, and I got that. No explanation whatsoever,  and I got her character pretty well. Her back story was written on her face, and I give her gigantic props for acting chops.

+ Pacing

I can’t recall too many times when I lean forward in the theater and literally sit on the edge of my seat, but I did when watching this movie. The film knew when to be tense, to the point of keeping my eyes glued to the screen, but it knew when to relax so that I could be pulled in again later on.

A good suspense flick needs to have that right amount of pull and release. If its just high intensity from start to finish, it just ends up getting stale. Case in point, Prison Break and LOST. These two shows started out utterly captivating. They just kept you hooked on the scene through cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger, even the season-enders were friggin’ cliff hangers. Though after their seasons 2 and 3 respectively, it just got really bad, despite the fact that they were doing the same thing that made them popular in the first place. The problem was that they didn’t give any time for the story to cool down, so people just got used to the cliffhangers, and what was once thrilling, became pretty boring. On the flip side, look at 24. You could say what you want about it, but at the very least, when the season ends, the story of that seasons ends with it. So you’re not carrying the baggage of past seasons when you hit the new one. It gives you a breather so that when the thrills come back again, you can be shocked again.

I don’t know what more I can say about it. It was just so well crafted, and the timing was impeccable every second of the way. The suspense was really brought out by the superb mix of both the pacing and the…

+Plot (for the most part)

On paper, the plot isn’t the most original thing I’ve ever read, but what really gets me is the way it was treated. This movie did such a brilliant job that I was actually surprised by the end. I mean, looking back, it wasn’t the most original ending, but because the movie had played so well with my expectations throughout the film, it made the twist at the end such a shocker.

That’s the problem with many movies today, they tend to think of a new ending, an original twist that could somehow make this desperate situation at the climax turn into a happy ending in 5 minutes. But much like with a joke, you could have the funniest punchline in the world, but if the set-up isn’t right, it won’t work. The same thing goes for movies. When you have a predictable plot, it makes it harder to have an unpredictable ending. But when all throughout, the plot takes unexpected turns, the ending, though not in itself totally original, becomes just that.

On paper, its a reporter and a computer hacker trying to solve a 40 year old disappearance. It doesn’t sound like the most awesome thing. But with the mix of the character of Lisbeth, with the intriguing plot and fantastic pace, this movie just blew me away.

+ Atmosphere

What I love about film is that, despite using more or less the same tools, there are still vast differences in how each movie feels. If there’s one thing I’ll credit American Cinema with, its that they have turned film into a science. People like Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese could pull camera angles and production designs from memory and execute a movie to technical perfection. The thing that American film loses a lot of the time though, through all the technical mastery, is raw emotion. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t have that problem at all.

The best thing about it is that I couldn’t point one specific element that drew out the powerful emotions in the movie. The whole film just did it. The sound, the editing, the cinematography, it all blends together to just bring out this level of passion that you wouldn’t generally see in Hollywood (which is why I’m worried about the American remake, but we’ll get to that when it comes out). There’s just a spark that Hollywood formula has a hard time replicating.

I’m really not sure how to explain it better than… If you’ve seen the Bourne Trilogy, did you notice the vibe change between the scenes where he’s in Europe and when he’s in the States? For practically any film production, its always cheaper to hire local crews versus say, flying the entire crew down to the boom mic operators to Europe. So when they shoot scenes in different locations, there’s a different feel to it. (On a side note, many people didn’t like Kill Bill, and its not my favorite Tarantino film, but I did appreciate how he made fun of this film convention. When he shot the movie in Japan, he had that crazy blood spurt samurai sword fight, when he shot in China, it had the whole kung-fu movie feel, and so on. The whole movie poked fun at that typical Hollywood practice.) Here, take a look at these scenes from Bourne Ultimatum if you need to jog your memory. Everything pre-3:29 is in Europe, everything after is in the States. I don’t know if its really all that clear, I’m having a hard time explaining it myself, but, and you can totally disagree with me here, but there is a different vibe between the US and European scenes.

Due to self-censorship, this is about as creepy and disturbing as Im gonna show, it gets worse though.

So… long digression about the cultural influences on the atmosphere of a film aside, this movie is great on its own merits. It’s suspenseful when it wants to deliver suspense, its dramatic when it wants to be dramatic, and when it’s creepy and disturbing, IT REALLY IS CREEPY AND DISTURBING. (don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

There, I told you the good parts,  I think its time for me to flip the script and set down some negatives.

– Mikael Blumkvist

Despite Lisbeth Salander being the title character, you could actually make the argument that Mikael Blumkvist is the real protagonist, since the plot happens to him, and Lisbeth seems to tag along out of curiosity, and help out, A LOT. In all fairness, on its own, his character isn’t so bad, it’s just that in relation to such a character like Lisbeth, it didn’t work too well for me. The actor, Michael Nyqvist, is nothing special, and is in fact pretty bland. He sort of fades into the background for me. And there were times in the early part of the movie where I simply forgot what he looked like, to the point where when he reappeared in this one scene, I thought it was the introduction of a new character.

Okay, I want to take a pause here and talk about these bland main characters, or “Starch characters“, a term which I just coined out of laziness to continually refer to them as bland main characters. The idea behind a Starch character is that, you take this blank slate of a character, and you make the movie interesting through their interactions with other people. I would argue that this type of character was, if not invented, made popular by the legendary Walt Disney. He started it off with the movie Snow White, way back in 1937. If you’ve seen the movie, Snow White is the dumbest, most generic, boring girl you would ever meet. Her story becomes amazing simply because of her interactions with the Seven Dwarves, who are way more interesting. Its these types of characters, having no really strong character traits in them, that allow the readers to insert themselves in the story. Basically, any girl can think they’re Snow White and dream of a kiss that’ll wake them up from their slumber.

This type of character has been used over and over again to varying levels of success. In Disney again, the main example has to be Mickey Mouse. He and the gang, quite fun. He alone, not as much, and it could actually stretch to a lot of Disney princes and princesses as well. Other examples include Archie Andrews, and for all you Twi-lovers out there, Bella. As far as I can tell, being a guy and all, the reason behind a lot of the Twilight popularity lies in the fact that Bella has no character, so any girl can become Bella, and they could imagine themselves as being the center of the affection of both Shark Boy and Cedric Diggory. Basically any girl who loves Twilight wants to be Bella, and with Bella’s Starch status, it becomes so much easier to do that.

Some examples of Starch characters. Could you imagine a movie with only them, and none of their friends? *shudder*

The problem with Mikael Blumkvist is that he’s just way too bland. Remember how I told you above how Lisbeth was characterized by her actions and not by a single description, well Mikael‘s case was the total reverse. He’s supposed to be this great investigative journalist, who fought toe-to-toe with the evil corporation in a valiant struggle which he eventually lost, but we never see it happen, we just hear about it. There’s a saying that goes: “The truth is seen, rarely heard.” As people, we generally believe in things we see versus things we hear, its only human nature, and practical human nature at that. So when we just keep hearing about how good Mikael Blumkvist is, but we never see it, we just can’t believe he’s all that great. It definitely is a distracting point from the plot, and it doesn’t help that he would never have figured anything out if not for Lisbeth. I mean, I don’t have anything wrong with the use of a Starch character perse, my problem is that, you probably wouldn’t hire any of them to investigate a disappearance that even the police wouldn’t solve. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the wherewithal to make Watson the Starch character instead of Sherlock Holmes.

The blandness hurts the story in another way. A bland character is defined by his relationships not by his own persona. In this movie, Lisbeth is, for some reason, intrigued by Blumkvist. But since he’s just so uninteresting, it just begs the question, WHY? Why does she stalk him despite having no personal gain? Why does she drop everything to go with him to solve this 40 year old case. Maybe the book explains it, in which case I may understand it better, but the movie doesn’t back it up at all. This was a bit damaging to the whole flow of the movie. So, while the plot as a whole was good, it just had a few holes here and there that just made for crazy, practically impossible coincidence.

– Plot Holes

Given my “as few spoilers as possible” mentality with this blog, I won’t go into too much detail. But there are just some random conclusions here and there that seem to come out of nowhere. I’ll give you one example. In the investigation of the disappearance, Mikael finds a series of coded messages in the victim’s diary. He saves it in a word file, and through mad hacking skills, is intercepted by Lisbeth, who, in the next scene, replies to Mikael with the cracked meaning. No thought process, no explanation of how they got to the conclusion, just boom, answer. Again, it probably was written in the book, but it wasn’t shown in the movie. This kind of thing pops up maybe 4-5 times in the movie, and it kinda dumbs down the detective element of the film.

Outside of these things though, there really isn’t much wrong with the movie.

My Cent’s Worth: 9/10

It’s gripping, thrilling, and will drive you to the edge of your seat. Noomi Rapace is chillingly fantastic in the role, and outside of a few disturbing scenes here and there, I do recommend it. (NEVER AS A DATE MOVIE THOUGH. Watch alone or with friends, but never on a date. Seriously.)

Posted on April 15, 2011, in Film Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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