By Jen Chaney
Friday, July 9, 2010; WE35
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- the film adaptation of the first in the series of phenomenally successful thrillers by Sweden's late native son Stieg Larsson -- did not come from Hollywood. No red-carpet regulars pop up in the cast. No splashy marketing campaign accompanied its arrival in U.S. theaters last spring.
And the movie, out this week on DVD ($29.95) and Blu-ray ($34.95), is better for it. Directed by Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is an engrossing, classically suspenseful story of an old-school journalist who teams up with a nose-ringed computer hacker to solve the decades-old case of a missing young woman from the decidedly wealthy (and creepy) Vanger family. The timing of its home-viewing debut couldn't be better since, like the novel that inspired it, "Tattoo" is the DVD equivalent of a really smart, edgy beach read. It's exactly the sort of taut, brainy puzzle you want to burrow into on a July night while bathing in the chilly comforts of an air-conditioned living room.
Those who come to this Swedish film without knowledge of the books may be struck most by the darkness of the material. Several of the narrative's key storylines deal with the abuse of women; one rape scene in particular is notable for its unflinching brutality. That being said, the violence is hardly the most notable aspect of the film.
It is Oplev's quiet handling of multiple plot threads -- including the aforementioned case of the missing Vanger girl and the love story that develops between its investigators, reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and expert digital spy Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) -- that is richly deserving of praise.
And then, of course, there's Lisbeth, a woman who looks like a distant, younger cousin of Joan Jett and serves simultaneously as female victim and empowered heroine. Rapace is thoroughly convincing in the part, a fact made more evident by an interview that serves as the only semi-worthwhile extra on the DVD. During the conversation, clearly snatched from the European press tour for the film, Rapace comes across as feminine and soft-spoken, several far cries from the steely, sometimes enraged, tatted-up character she plays. "I was so sure that people would hate me, and they don't," she says at one point of her work in the film. The interview makes clear how completely Rapace inhabited the role.
The other special features can charitably be described as skimpy. A Vanger family tree, designed to help the viewer understand all the connections between the relatives at this mystery's core, is somewhat informative but completely uninteractive. And the trailer for the second installment in the film series, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" (reviewed by Michael O'Sullivan on Page 30), isn't much of an extra since it's easily viewable online.
So watch "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but do it for the thrills of the story, not for the quality of the supplemental material. And do try to watch it relatively soon. This production may not have come from Hollywood, but plans are underway for an American version of "Tattoo," directed by David Fincher. The casting of the leads has not been determined but has already fueled much debate online, a situation that makes this version all the more precious. There are no Brad Pitts or Carey Mulligans in the Swedish adaptation -- just convincing unknown actors and a director smart enough to let a well-crafted and multifaceted whodunit take center stage.