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Mad As Hell

film_GirlDragonTattooKick-ass heroine powers taut thriller, 'Girl With Dragon Tattoo'
She gets mad. She gets even. And she manages to maintain a fragile balance of power in a world dominated by absolute male authority where the odds are skewed dramatically against her. She's Lisbeth Salander, a brave new breed of movie heroine unleashed in the bracing Swedish crime thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. As portrayed onscreen by the riveting Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth is one tough cookie, with a secret, well-guarded vein of vulnerability and a take-no-prisoners moral ethic. She plays for keeps.

Directed with kinetic verve by Niels Arden Oplev, from a script by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, Dragon Tattoo is adapted from the first book in the "Millennium Trilogy" crime series by Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson. Although Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 before the first book was published, his series has become an international publishing phenomenon, not only for its kick-ass heroine, but for the author's uncompromising exposé of moral and political corruption among the upper echelons of the power elite.

In Dragon Tattoo, protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (played with scruffy integrity by Michael Nyqvist) is, like author Larsson, a middle-aged investigative reporter writing for a respected Stockholm news magazine (here called Millennium). He's just lost a libel suit brought by a wealthy industrialist (for which he was set up with false "evidence") and is facing a prison stint to begin in six months. Cut loose from the magazine for the duration, Mikael accepts a job offer from elderly zillionaire Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), whose wealthy, powerful family live like feudal lords on a remote island in the Swedish archipelago north of Stockholm.

Henrik wants closure on the disappearance of his favorite niece, Harriet, 40 years earlier. He hires Mikael to find out if she was murdered by some other member of the Vanger clan greedy for what the girl would inherit from the childless Henrik—a low opinion of his own kin that seems justified from the generations of Nazis, Hitler Youth, and neo-Nazis Mikael discovers on the Vanger family tree when he moves into a cottage on Henrik's estate with his trusty laptop to launch his investigation.

Back in Stockholm, another Vanger employee, Lisbeth Salander (Rapace), a pierced, tattooed, kohl-eyed young Goth with a history of violence and psychiatric issues, has been fighting arrogant male fascism all her life—from thugs in the street to her slimy new probation officer. A tech wizard and expert hacker initially hired by the Vanger Corporation to run a clandestine background check on Mikael, she's still accessing his files. When she starts emailing him insightful pointers on the case, he invites her to the island to help him out.

Director Oplev skillfully combines the wonk nirvana of their high-tech investigation, (old still photos digitized into a moving film strip, for instance) and taut, fast-paced suspense, with a mounting miasma of horror at the sheer scope and increasingly degenerate nature of the Vanger family crimes. The film is not for the fainthearted; be prepared for some gruesome images, along with intense moments of sexual and physical violence. (But the context is feminist fury, not titillation.)

But the heart of the film is the unlikely camaraderie between easygoing Mikael and ferociously (and justifiably) coiled and wary Lisbeth. Theirs is not a conventional relationship by any means; Lisbeth has every reason to dislike and mistrust men, but she's not yet too jaded to respond to some fundamental decency in Mikael the way a drowning woman might respond to an unexpected breath of fresh air.  Their compelling story, etched by Oplev with such credibility and precision, highlights Larsson's favorite theme—too much power, money, and old-boy cronyism at the top of the socio-political heap in modern western society. (It's illuminating that the novel's original Swedish title was "Men Who Hate Women.")

film_girl_with_the_dragon_tattooCrusading journalist Larsson had a Dickensian knack for making the political personal in his fiction, a delicate relationship Oplev preserves with skill and chutzpah. Rumor has it Hollywood is already cranking out an Americanized version of the story, but Oplev's excellent film will be the standard by which future sequels and adaptations are measured.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO ★★★1/2 (out of four)

With Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. From the novel by Stieg Larsson. A Music Box Films release. Not rated. 152 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.
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