Dragon Tattoo

Scandinavian Surveillance: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Contemporary Scandinavian cinema seems to have reconciled its past arthouse roots, most famously evinced in the cinema of the late Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, with current, popular genres. Recent releases from the land of the midnight sun include, Let the Right One In (2008) the highly touted Swedish vampire film, Flammen & Citroen (2008) a Danish neo noir thriller about Nazi resistance fighters, and Dead Snow (2009) a darkly comic Norwegian zombie flick. Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is perhaps the apex of this trend.

Based on the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which has sold over 27 million copies globally, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) on his investigation into the disappearance of the niece of wealthy business man, Henrik Vanger (Sven Bertil-Taube). Along the way, Blomkvist finds out that he is being investigated by Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a brilliant, but troubled, hacker with a photographic memory. The two ultimately team up to uncover the Vanger family’s dark secret, which involves misogyny, anti-Semitism, and murder.

What makes this film compelling are the two main characters, who complement each other perfectly. Mikael is a highly skilled, old school investigative reporter, labeled the “last bastion of journalism with ideals.” Lizbeth, on the other hand, is a cyberpunk heroine, as skilled at street fighting as she is at hacking. Like Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) from The Matrix (1999) she is a kind of deadly waif. Lisbeth and Mikael are both oppressed by more powerful state institutions. Wrongfully convicted of libel, Mikael has a prison sentence dangling over his head throughout the film. Lisbeth has an abusive parole officer who sexually molests her before granting her money from her trust fund. Lisbeth and Mikael differ in the way that they respond to oppression, however. Where Mikael is constrained by the law, Lisbeth defies it. She turns the tables on the parole officer, rapes him, and tattoos, “I am a sadist pig” on his chest. Unlike Mikael, Lisbeth is amoral, and moves beyond exposing the truth, the goal of the investigative reporter, to bringing about justice.

The film is also a tribute to the benefits of surveillance technology. Rather than an Orwellian big brother-ish depiction of state surveillance, we see the democratization of surveillance technology. Lisbeth uses a small video camera to outsmart her abusive parole officer. Later, the small cameras she has hidden help her find Mikael when he’s being held prisoner. She watches over Mikael, first through a camera, but then through his computer, sending him the traceable email assuring that they ultimately meet. Throughout the film technology helps the characters construct narrative truth from a sea of archival information. Some of the most cinematically compelling scenes show the animation of still images, revealing that the vast repositories of information we all leave behind are not merely binary trails of info-pollution, but crucial narrative pieces, that a skilled mind can re-assemble to tell our particular story. On the other hand, it also shows that without that skilled mind, that same sea of information can serve just as well to hide us, as it does Henrik Vanger’s niece for much of the film.

As the first film in a trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sets the tone for its successors by introducing us to two fascinating investigators who will keep critics talking about Scandinavian cinema for at least another year. Perhaps by the end of the series we will know why, in Europe’s most advanced societies with the highest standard of living and broadest safety net, there is such an obsession with uncovering hidden evil in popular film and literature.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: December 2009.