Everybody loves a good mystery. Mystery is the spice of life, as they say. Or is that variety? Anyway, everybody loves a good mystery, and here we have a cracking good one: The Case of the Runaway Hit. Stieg Larsson's Swedish crime novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has remained on The New York Times Best Sellers list for almost a year, currently topped only by Nicholas Sparks' The Last Song. (At Powell's Books, Sparks offers no competition.) The success of Larsson's book and its two sequels—posthumously published following his untimely heart attack—is, on some level, elementary, right there in the plot: A rich old man hires a disgraced journalist to investigate the disappearance of his niece. Like I said, everybody loves this stuff, and those who prefer Christian romance can read Nicholas Sparks.
Now here comes the movie, imported from Sweden, with an American remake in the offing. Synergy is the spice of life, as they say, but watching this morbid production sure feels like death. At first, we see the rich old man sitting at his big desk and crying, and it's almost comically Swedish. Will this be a tribute to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, a cleansing journey of late-life regret? Soon we meet our hero, the noble muckraker Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who faces jail time for libeling another rich old man. Will this be an exposé of corporate conspiracy? This juicy possibility fuels the book's socialist outrage, but the movie has no time for politics, shoving them aside in favor of the main attraction.
Can you guess? It's the girl. The one with the dragon tattoo. That title promises a hoary cliché, a promiscuous goddess out of Raymond Chandler. But the original Swedish title was "Men Who Hate Women," and here is the author's creative coup: His girl is a feminist fatale, a frigid survivor of male abuse named Lisbeth Salander, who joins the muckraker in uncovering misogynist horrors straight out of the Old Testament. Attired in immaculate biker-punk chic, the actress Noomi Rapace becomes Our Lady of Damaged Goods. But she's a new kind of sexy cliché, with no more inner life than the old one. It takes forever for her to meet up with her sleuthing partner, and she is excused from showing her feelings until the last possible minute. The actors have a lovely rapport, which the story barely permits. Maybe in the sequel.
Alfred Hitchcock might have used this pulp material as soil for his own lurid sprouts, but director Niels Arden Oplev has no imagination. In black and blue, he films what he finds on the page, and the result is television, of the sort we can watch every night of the week on 15 different channels. Of course it's exciting to read about detectives doing research, because it feels like we're doing it along with them—scanning the evidence, spotting the clues. But make us sit and watch an actor squint at a computer screen for more than 30 seconds, and we fall into a vodka stupor.
Then the film sticks a finger down our throat with artful snuff, the torture and murder of women, which we are invited to condemn, at our leisure. Most explicitly, there is the rape of our heroine, which she returns in kind. On her attacker's torso, she carves a tattoo of her own design: "I'M A SADIST PIG AND A RAPIST." What exactly shall we call someone who considers this an evening's entertainment? Not a rapist, at least. Larsson clearly wanted to rub our noses in real crimes, but will those wounds be healed by medieval spectacle?
The thing is 2½ hours of Apple computers and blunt trauma and Xeroxing the Bible. Basically, David Fincher's Se7en. And hey, big surprise, Fincher is attached to do the remake. Nothing here to breach the director's disdain for human connection: America's angrier goths can rejoice. Misery is the spice of life, as they say.
is not rated. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.