The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the second retelling in less than a decade of Stieg Larsson's preternaturally gripping book about hackers, investigative journalists, rape and murder. Larsson's novel, published posthumously in 2005, spawned a Swedish film, an international cult following, and finally David Fincher's Hollywood flick, out today, complete with terawatt star Daniel Craig in the lead role of journalist Mikael Blomqvist.
When you watch the film, you'll understand immediately why people are obsessed with its story. Fincher's movie, far truer to the novel than the Swedish version, will be a treat for fans of Larsson's series. And the uninitiated will find their nightmares haunted by this cyberpunk-tinged tale of high tech vigilantes solving a murder mystery that stretches back into a wealthy Swedish family's ugly past of Nazism and worse.
From the instant the movie begins, we're plunged into the rich complexity of characters and events that makes this story so mesmerizing. An aging industrial magnate from the wealthy Vanger family contacts journalist Blomqvist in the wake of a libel scandal - Blomqvist has accused a corrupt business tycoon of fraud, but it turns out his sources were also corrupt. Though we know he's in the right, Blomqvist can't prove it in court. Disgraced, he quits his job at the celebrated independent magazine Millennium.
So Vanger takes advantage of Blomqvist's situation to offer him a job. Vanger's beloved niece Harriet was murdered 40 years ago on a remote island in northern Sweden. But somebody has been mailing Vanger the dried, pressed flowers that Harriet used to give him every year on his birthday. He wants Blomqvist to use his considerable investigative skills to track down Harriet's killer. Intrigued and aimless, Blomqvist agrees, leaving his girlfriend (the editor of Millenium) and moving into a cabin on the Vangers' island where Harriet was last seen. He's dubious that he'll uncover anything, but right away he starts to find terrifying answers to questions that stumped the police for years.
As we watch Blomqvist getting drawn into the mystery of Harriet's disappearance, we're introduced to the film's other protagonist (and arguably its hero), underground hacker Lisbeth Salander (the incredible Rooney Mara). A young woman with a troubled past, she's been declared a ward of the state because she's "violent" and "antisocial" — which we quickly come to understand really means that she defends herself and refuses to play by the rules. She works for a private investigations agency, which has also been hired by the Vangers - to investigate Blomqvist before hiring him. When he comes up clean, she continues to follow what Blomqvist is doing by hacking into his computer. She's as intrigued by Blomqvist's work as he is.
But unlike Blomqvist, Salander is a Batman-style badass. Using nothing but high tech tools, her photographic memory, and an appetite for violent justice, she rights the wrongs that have been done to her. When the state puts Salander's finances in the hands of a cruel guardian who rapes her, we find out just how tough and scary-awesome she can be. (A warning: These scenes are tough to watch, but they're necessary for establishing her character.)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as much about Blomqvist and Salander coming together as it is about solving a mystery. Ruthless, talented investigators, the two are willing to stop at nothing to get at the truth - not just because they want justice, but because they share an obsession for finding patterns, sifting evidence, and ferreting out crime. The Swedish novel's title is Men Who Hate Women, and this highlights another passion Blomqvist and Salander share, which is men who take power through abuse. Whether those powerful men are abusing women or the financial system, our heroes will take those bastards down.
In many ways, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo evokes a vanishing world whose monsters still have the power to sting. There are the still-deadly ghosts from the Vangers' past, plus the Nazi ghosts that lurk in Sweden's history. But perhaps unintentionally, Fincher has also created a film whose heroes are vanishing into the past as well. In an era when investigative journalism is withering away, Blomqvist is a particularly poignant figure. His job with Vanger seems weirdly symbolic of what's happening to a lot of journalists these days - he's having to repurpose his investigative skills to do something vastly different than writing. Then, when the fiercely independent Millenium magazine starts taking investment funds from the Vanger family, it's clear that Blomqvist's world is disappearing as fast as the one that produced the troubled young Harriet.
As for Salander, whose ethernet-laced dreams illustrate the movie's incredible opening credit sequence, she's ripped right from a cyberpunk story circa 1990. From her industrial-punk look to her high tech/lowlife milieu, she could be stalking through the pages of William Gibson's Bridge trilogy - itself a cyberpunk-style story cycle set in the immediate past. Author Larsson, a longtime science fiction fan, would surely have been aware of cyberpunk, and its deep narrative connections with the detective fiction he also adored. As Sasha Mitchell and other critics have said, Salander is surely a cyberpunk heroine.
But is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a cyberpunk story? If you think of cyberpunk as a purely science fictional subgenre, then no. If, however, cyberpunk is a way of telling stories about the collision between crime, technology, and human augmentation - well, you're about to see the most cyberpunk movie of the year. And yet, like investigative journalism, cyberpunk as a writing style is slowly vanishing. Salander is as much of a retro good guy as Blomqvist is.
My hunch is that part of what drives the incredible popularity of Larsson's novels, and the many movies based on them, is their dark nostalgia. Enemies and heroes from the recent (and distant) past battle it out in these stories, reassuring us that yesterday's crimes won't go unpunished. Or perhaps more optimistically, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gives us hope that those who were wronged long ago will finally find some kind of peace.