The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a Gem as is

Get out your reading glasses and see the film in its original langauge before Hollywood ruins it!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Directed by Niels Arden Opley

152 mins. in Swedish with subtitles (graphic sexuality and violence)
* * * * *

From Hollywood comes the news that an American remake is planned for the Danish/Swedish film Män som hatar kvinnor—in release on North America under the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and based on the Stieg Larsson novel of the same name. Rumor has it that Brad Pitt is being considered for the lead and that all of Tinseltown’s pretty young things are lining up for the female lead. What a waste! No; this isn’t another slam at Hollywood—which is child’s play—rather an acknowledgement that the original film is so good that there’s no need to mess with it. It is claimed that Americans simply won’t watch films with subtitles. To this we say, get over it. We can’t recall a single European film that was better in remake than in the original, but we could supply quite a long list of fabulous films that were as bland as three-day-old porridge in their English-language garb.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a disturbing, but brilliant film and part of what makes it work is that its principles are solid actors who are not Hollywood-style eye candy. We follow the travails of investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who works for a crusading liberal magazine. He’s just lost a major libel suit to a well-heeled industrial giant and is facing six months in jail. In the period between his conviction and when he begins his sentence he’s hired by another powerful magnate, Henrik Vanger, to see if Blomkvist can unravel a forty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of Vanger’s beloved niece, Harriet, from the family’s island compound. Each year Henrik receives a talisman in the mail that suggests that Harriet’s killer is still on the loose.

In a parallel story that soon merges with Blomkvist’s, we meet Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a damaged young woman under close court supervision. Her former guardian has just been replaced by a respected politician and at first glance, it looks as if Lisbeth needs a lot of guardianship. She looks like a cross between present-day Goth and late 70s’ punk—her hair is sliced into severe angles, her body is crisscrossed with piercings and self-inflicted insignia, and her back is covered with the tattoo of an angry dragon breathing as much smoke as the cigarettes Lisbeth is seldom without. We learn that in her youth Lisbeth set a man afire and the years have done little to tamp down her simmering anger. She is, however, a hacker extraordinaire. When Lisbeth hears of Blomkvist’s conviction, she investigates him and hacks into the Vanger files upon which he’s working. In one of the few things that is predictable in this film, Blomkvist and Salander soon begin to collaborate. What they learn is far more disturbing than Harriet’s disappearance—a serial killer of women is at large, probably someone whose misogyny is linked to fascism. We give nothing away by telling you this: all of the film’s surface impressions are important because almost no one in this film is exactly as they appear to be.

Already we see pitfalls involved in a U.S. remake. How do we explain what’s common in Scandinavia: allowing a prisoner to defer serving jail time to get his affairs in order? Not trying a juvenile murderer as an adult? The legacy of Nazism? Moreover, to work well Blomkvist has to look protean and rumbled, and Lisbeth needs to be scary, scared, and scarred (literally and psychologically). And what on earth will Hollywood do with themes such as graphic sex, torture, sodomy, and dismemberment?

This is not an easy film to watch by any stretch of the imagination. On a scale of one to ten with Mary Poppins on the low end and Silence of Lambs on the other, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a nine. So why anyone would want to see this movie? First of all, it is a heart-palpitating thriller that will leave you white-knuckled. Second, although it’s graphic, it is never gratuitous. That is to say, everything disturbing is in the service of greater questions that make us contemplate issues of gender, justice, greed, power, and (ultimately) humanity. Third, the central performances are riveting. Nyqvist is pitch perfect as he tiptoes between world-weariness, cynicism, and zeal. Rapace is a revelation—a smoldering cauldron of revulsion and desire who makes us want to look away, yet we can’t take our eyes off her. Finally, Opley’s off-balance direction is intelligent and engaging. Think of the tension of a Hitchcock film, the intricacy of Memento, the squalor of Pulp Fiction, and the misdirection of Black Widow.

Put on your reading glasses and see the Swedish-language version. Why re-cut a perfect gem?


New Crooked Still Album Pushes Bluegrass to New Heights

Some Strange Country
Signature Sounds
* * * *

Normally I’m not a fan of invented terms such as “nu-folk bluegrass,” but I’ll make an exception for Crooked Still, one of a handful of bands that are taking bluegrass well beyond anything Bill Monroe envisioned. Gone are the nasal vocals and endless virtuoso breakouts of yore; in their stead is the gorgeous voice of lead vocalist Aoife O’Donovan and a rich instrumental tapestry in which Tristan Clarridge’s cello factors as prominently as Greg Liszt’s banjo or Britany Haas’s fiddle. And with a repertoire that includes covers of The Rolling Stones (“You Got the Silver”), Jerry Garcia (“I’m Troubled”), and a Child Ballad filtered through Nick Cave (“Henry Lee”), this is definitely not your Appalachian grandmother’s bluegrass. O’Donovan’s reedy voice is perfect for this lineup in that she opts for intonations that meld rather than stand out distinctly. The manner in which her tones resonate often has the effect of acting as another instrument, one adding a swingy backbeat to arrangements featuring great tension between instruments. This effect can be heard in its edgy glory on “You Were Gone.” This band blows new life into everything it does, even a shopworn standard such as “Golden Vanity.” Crooked Still is a testament to the ways in which tradition is at its best when it synchs to the calendar.

Check out the opening track of their new album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Hbm4XUZ1Xs