The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre and Sven-Bertil Taube

If 2009 was the year of the animated film–with such stellar romps as Up, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox delighting critics and audiences–2010 is shaping up to be the year of the thriller.

In the first quarter of ’10 alone, we’ve been treated to six intriguing thrillers, beginning with the Red Riding Trilogy, a trio of bleak, brutal British crime stories set in Yorkshire circa 1974, 1980 and 1983 respectively.  Then came Martin Scorsese’s fascinating, if flawed, Shutter Island, a psychological mind-bender about the lengths to which one man will go to escape his guilty conscience cloaked in the guise of a detective story.  Finally, there was The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s agreeably odd fusion of a political thriller and a murder mystery.

Now here’s the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the international best-selling novel of the same name, and, funnily enough, it’s the most mainstream movie of the lot.  In fact, Tattoo is the second foreign film I’ve seen so far this year–the other being the French prison drama A Prophet–that could be a substantial box-office hit on these shores if it weren’t for the fact that nobody seems to know how to market international pictures to American audiences anymore.  At heart, this is an old-fashioned potboiler featuring such tried and true genre staples as a missing woman, a down-on-his-luck investigator, a large, wealthy family populated by more than a few bad apples and a mystery that spans decades and involves murder most foul.  In short, it’s the kind of material mass audiences lap up when its featured beneath the covers of a James Patterson-penned book or in an episode of the many, many crime shows that dominate the Nielsen ratings chart, from CSI to Law & Order to Criminal Minds.  (It’s worth noting that, in print form, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a substantial hit in this country so familiarity with the source material might enhance the film’s chances for commercial success–although it’ll still be lucky to bank one-half of Shutter Island‘s opening weekend gross.)

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaguely resembles CSI in content, its execution is, thankfully, entirely different.  Inspired by the popularity of our TV crime shows, most American-made feature thrillers zip along at high speeds, cutting hurriedly between flashlight-lit investigations at dark crime scenes, glossy images of autopsies, chaotic car chases and climactic confrontations where the hunter and the prey stand face-to-face.  Instead of following that template, director Niels Arden Oplev slows the pace down considerably.  The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo unfolds at a leisurely 152-minutes allowing the audience to really focus their attention on how the mystery unfolds step-by-step.  I haven’t read the book, but Oplev’s approach feels suitably novelistic–he’s fascinated by the actual investigative process, not the trappings (i.e. shootouts, chases and the like) that often distract from it onscreen.

The film is at its best during the first hour or so, as the many threads of the central mystery are slowly, but surely woven together.  In brief, four decades ago, the beautiful niece of well-off business man Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) vanished and he’s been obsessed with learning her fate ever since.  In a last ditch effort to solve the case, Vanger turns to disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who has recently been convicted of libel and sentenced to a prison term due to start in six months, which naturally gives him plenty of time to take over a long-stalled investigation into a forty-year-old crime.  Setting up shop on Vanger’s lavish estate, Blomkvist learns about the not-too-charming history of his benefactor’s family (let’s just say that Nazism is the tip of the iceberg) and actually makes some headway in the case, much to the chagrin of Henrik’s suspicious relatives.  Meanwhile, Blomkvist is being monitored via his computer by a leather-clad young hacker named Lisabeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) who has problems of her own, including a state-appointed guardian that expects sexual favors in return for filing good progress reports.

It takes some time for these two to cross paths and, unfortunately, once they do the movie loses its footing somewhat.  Once he’s clued into the fact that his digital footprints are being followed, Blomvkist recruits Lisabeth to help with the investigation.  Initially, the odd-couple pairing of a grouchy reporter and a bad-ass computer genius seems like a terrific development, but it’s spoiled when the characters embark on a relationship that, while not exactly romantic, does involve sleeping together on a regular basis.  This storyline might have made more sense on the page, but in the film it’s an abrupt development that seems at odds with what we’ve learned of these two people, particularly Lisabeth.  At the same time they’re hooking up, the mystery they’re investigating starts to unravel as well, as too many coincidences and contrivances clutter the previously gripping narrative.  The last half-hour in particular is filled with so many improbable developments, I had to resist the urge to laugh in disbelief at times.  To give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that the ridiculous climax and dénouement is lifted wholesale out of the book.  Even so, it’s a weak finish after such a carefully constructed set-up.

Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo disappoints in a big way at the end, I have no problem recommending it to moviegoers, particularly those who have an unbridled enthusiasm for the thriller genre.  For the majority of its running time, it’s a well-acted, well-told whodunit that’s squarely in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett…albeit with computer hacking and rougher sex.  My taste in thrillers still trends towards more unconventional fare, but I’d happily choose to re-watch Tattoo over mainstream American staples like CSI or Kiss the Girls any day.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in limited release on Friday.