The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Studio: Music Box Films Home Entertainment
Film Length: 152 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Swedish DD 5.1; English DD 5.1
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Feb. 27, 2009 (Sweden); Mar. 19, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: July 6, 2010
Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is a worldwide publishing phenomenon. Three films based on the novels had been released in Sweden even before the third book was published in the United States. The first film – known in Sweden by Larsson’s original title, Men Who Hate Women, but elsewhere as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – was a blockbuster throughout Europe. It’s also had a long and (for a foreign language film) profitable run in America.
Dragon Tattoo was released here by Music Box Films, which boasts a good track record, having successfully released the French thriller Tell No One in 2008. But whereas Music Box used to outsource their home video work, this year they started their own division for DVD and now Blu-ray. Dragon Tattoo is the first release in both formats.
(A footnote for those unfamiliar with Stieg Larsson: He never saw the huge success of his works, dying of a massive heart attack at age 50, shortly before publication of the first novel. He left behind an unfinished fourth book and a messy battle over his estate.)
Anyone who knows Larsson’s world doesn’t need a plot summary. Anyone new to it won’t thank me for giving too much away. As adaptations go, the film is generally faithful to the novel, but it’s been expertly crafted by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (now living in the U.S. and reportedly being wooed by Hollywood) to create the most gripping cinematic thriller since The Silence of the Lambs.
The Millennium Trilogy revolves around two characters. The first is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist loosely based on Larsson himself. As Dragon Tattoo opens, Blomkvist’s career has just been wrecked by an adverse judgment in a court case over an exposé that Blomkvist published in Millennium magazine. The subject of the article, a wealthy industrialist named Wennerström (Stefan Sauk), sued and won, and the Swedish court has imposed a fine and a three-month prison term. For its own protection, the magazine forces Blomkvist to take a leave of absence. His future looks bleak.
As if on cue, an opportunity appears. Blomkvist is approached by a lawyer representing Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the 82-year-old head of the Vanger Group, an industrial conglomerate. A withdrawn and haunted man, Vanger asks Blomkvist to use the months before he must report to prison to investigate a 40-year-old murder: that of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet. The extended Vanger family lives on a remote island, from which Harriet disappeared under circumstances indicating that only a family member could have been responsible. Extensive police investigation revealed nothing, but every year on his birthday, Vanger receives a “memento” from the killer. It’s just the sort of thing Vanger expects from his family, who are a nasty collection of scorpions-in-a-bucket.
With no other options before him, Blomkvist takes the job. What he doesn’t yet know is that he has a shadow, who is the film’s other major character. She is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the 24-year-old “girl” of the title and one of the most intriguing characters in modern fiction, on either the page or the screen. Both striking and off-putting in appearance, with multiple piercings and tattoos, Lisbeth says little and mostly avoids direct contact with people, preferring the anonymity of her computer. She has a dark and mysterious past and an equally dark present (I am being deliberately vague here). Her intelligence is fierce, and so is her survival instinct. She has been, and continues to be, underestimated by almost everyone she meets.
Lisbeth works as a “researcher” for Milton Security, an investigative firm retained by Vanger’s attorney to run a security check on Blomkvist before hiring him to reopen the Harriet Vanger case. Lisbeth, who never met a firewall she couldn’t breach or a database she couldn’t crack, gives Blomkvist a clean recommendation, but continues to track him when the assignment is over. Blomkvist intrigues her. After he takes the Vanger assignment, Lisbeth keeps peeking over his shoulder electronically. Then she starts helping. Then they start working together.
The investigation occupies the second half of the film and sends Lisbeth and Blomkvist criss-crossing Sweden pursuing unusual leads. They’re an odd couple, and Rapace and Nykvist have such exceptional screen chemistry that they hold your attention even when they’re just riding in a car together, uncomfortably saying nothing. The film has a long running time, because director Oplev has several stories to tell – Lisbeth’s, Blomkvist’s, the Vanger family’s – but he juggles them with consummate skill, so that each one intensifies the other as the suspense keeps building.
The world of Dragon Tattoo is sinister and dangerous. There are only a few scenes of violence, but the entire film feels violent in a way that’s intimate and unnerving. For me, this is a mark of both Oplev’s mastery as a director and of his refusal to pander to the viewer. He doesn’t offer the audience the easy release of humor to take the edge off the violence, nor does he distance the audience so that violence can be enjoyed as pulp sensation. (Anyone who does enjoy these scenes in Dragon Tattoo should seek professional help immediately.) In Oplev’s presentation, violence feels monstrous and awful, a form of barbarism visited on the powerless by those wishing to demonstrate their power – and this remains true even in one memorable scene where the victim can be said to be receiving just desserts.
It’s worth noting that both of the professional critics on At the Movies rated Dragon Tattoo a “skip it” because they found the violence too intense. And yet both recommended The Crazies, which has considerably more gore. But that’s the effect of Oplev’s technique. Dragon Tattoo leaves people shaken, just as Silence of the Lambs did – and Oplev doesn’t have anyone like Hannibal Lecter to spook the audience. What Oplev has instead is Noomi Rapace’s uncanny personification of Lisbeth Salander. Rapace’s Lisbeth exudes a troubled intensity that permeates the film. One of the key storylines is how she got that way. In some ways, it’s the most disturbing storyline of all.
Although Dragon Tattoo is the first in a trilogy of films, it’s complete and self-sufficient. Oplev and his two screenwriters wisely borrowed enough material from Larsson’s second novel to provide viewers a sense of closure and a convenient resting point. Music Box is releasing the remaining two films in America later this year, but Oplev did not direct them and neither achieved Dragon Tattoo’s success. This is no doubt partly due to Larsson himself, who chose to take his characters in a different direction after the first novel. Dragon Tattoo stands on its own as a remarkable achievement in storytelling: compelling, intense, utterly contemporary, and yet almost old-fashioned in relying primarily on character, story and the kind of “invisible” direction that has largely vanished from American filmmaking. It’s one of the best films released here this year.
I was initially concerned when I saw that this lengthy film had been released on a BD-25, but it’s amazing what a skilled compressionist can do. Of course, it helps to have a clean, contemporary source with grain largely eliminated by a digital intermediate, no big action scenes, and no significant extras to consume space.
On my 72" screen, the Blu-ray’s image was sharp, detailed and colorful. Most of Dragon Tattoo takes place during the winter in a northern climate, and the pallette is dominated by whites, blues, greens and deep blacks. Part of Oplev’s visual strategy is to stage the worst acts of violence in clean, well-lit places, while the surviving victims of violence, like the elderly Vanger, are often found in shadow. Certain scenes stand out for their contrasting browns, oranges and reds (and I’ll say no more than that). Some of the locations are gorgeous, e.g., the occasional long shot of Stockholm and various views of the Vanger family island. The Blu-ray’s image presents these diverse environments faithfully and without any noticeable softening to simplify the compressionist’s job. Nor did I spot any digital artifacts.
(I leave open the possibility that, on larger screens, issues may appear that were not evident on mine. Should anyone encounter them, I’d like to hear about it.)
The viewer has a choice of the original Swedish language track (with optional English subtitles) or a dubbed English track. Both are in Dolby Digital 5.1, and I am aware that some readers will reject this disc due to the absence of a lossless track. (Tell No One also lacked a lossless 5.1 track.) However, I would urge people to consider the context. Music Box is a small specialty operation, not a major studio. Boycotting their output over a lack of lossless audio does not “send them a message”; it simply deprives the viewer of the film. Multiple “dips” of these kinds of films are the exception rather than the rule, and we are unlikely to see another version of Dragon Tattoo on Blu-ray.
I prefer to evaluate what’s on the disc rather than guess at what might have been. As it happens, the Swedish DD 5.1 track offers an effective and involving experience. Though Dragon Tattoo does not provide the sound designer the kind of showcase that an action film does, it’s still an impressive demonstration of the subtle use of audio to enhance a film’s narrative. A good example occurs early in the film, just after Blomkvist has received the adverse verdict in the Wennerström case. He’s walking down a Stockholm street seeing his name and face on all the headlines and news broadcasts, when people pass him laughing about something – and suddenly their laughter is echoing in his head and all around him, as the full weight of his humiliation almost knocks him over.
The track is full of small ambient noises appropriate to the environment (e.g., at Milton Security, where there always seems to be a phone ringing in the distance). To the extent that I was able to judge from the occasional English word, the dialogue appears to be clearly rendered, and it remains firmly anchored to the center. The atmospheric and sometimes unsettling score by Danish composer Jacob Groth is effectively presented. The bottom line is that I heard the film’s soundtrack with detail and clarity beyond what I experienced when I saw the film in the theater. Perhaps it could have been better, but it’s certainly very good.
Vanger Family Tree. Although the viewer gets all the necessary information about the Vangers during the course of the film, it’s still interesting to see the family tree laid out on one page.
Interview with Noomi Rapace (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (12:31). The interview is in English, which Rapace speaks fluently with very little accent. She talks at length about being selected for the role of Lisbeth, her extensive preparation (which lasted seven months) and the eighteen months of shooting for the three films.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is available as a separate extra. At startup the disc plays trailers for Shall We Kiss?, Séraphine, Cloud 9, Northface, Mesrine, OSS117 Lost in Rio and The Girl Who Played With Fire. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available from the features menu.
Larsson’s novels are too popular for U.S. filmmakers to resist, and an American version of Dragon Tattoo is already in the works from producer Scott Rudin, with David Fincher attached to direct. Casting is supposed to be announced shortly. Rudin has vowed to respect Larsson’s original intent, to keep the Swedish setting, and not to water down the subject matter. That being the case, one has to wonder what even as talented a director as Fincher can offer when the genuine article already exists.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub