At its heart the mystery genre is about how people deal with past actions. Go all the way back to “Oedipus Rex” and you’ve got a man investigating a crime that happened decades before, and its consequences in the present. It’s a perfect setup for a people whose religion explicitly and repeatedly tells them to remember the past.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson, and the film version, which opens on March 19, are the product of Swedish ingenuity. But they take as their plot device the depredations of a serial killer whose Nazi political affiliations lead him to target Jewish women, drawing on the Hebrew Bible for his twisted inspiration. So, in a roundabout and slightly perverse way, although there are no living Jewish characters in the story, you could say that it is an example of the mystery genre fulfilling the Jewish injunction zachor, to remember.
Facing an expensive and painful appeals process and a short jail sentence, Blomkvist has nothing better to do than accept an assignment from Henrik Vanger (the pleasingly avuncular Sven-Bertil Taube), the elderly head of a large, secretive conglomerate, whose beloved niece Harriet disappeared 40 years ago. Someone has been sending Vanger pressed flowers from around the world every year on his birthday, exactly as Harriet had done, and he is convinced that the mysterious gift-giver is her killer. The most recent gift, which triggers his hiring of Blomkvist, appears to be a large sprig of pressed rosemary; if you know your Shakespeare, you know “that’s for remembrance.”
The Vanger clan, which Henrik describes as “30 small-minded greedy persons,” are implicated in the disappearance, and the fact that three of the older Vangers were active and enthusiastic members of the Swedish Nazi Party seems to be of considerable significance. But Larsson and filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the film version, have other fish to fry as well, and there is a second, equally disturbing undercurrent running through the story — a series of violently abusive relationships in which men torture and rape women. This theme seems to find its final expression in the serial killings but, as befits a nicely crisscrossing narrative line, there are a few more sharp turns to the story.
Oplev recounts this tale with a brisk, Hitchcockian focus on surveillance, eavesdropping, confusions of identity and transferences of guilt. The screenplay by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel preserves Larsson’s dry humor and workmanlike plotting, and Blomqvist, who looks like a careworn Scandinavian version of James Woods, is suitably ardent and bemused as the reporter, while Rapace is appropriately opaque for much of the film, keeping her cards very close to her leather-clad goth chest. The result is a snappy little genre item, perhaps a little languorous at 152 minutes, but never boring. n
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, opens Friday, March 19 at the Lincoln Plaza, Sunshine and Clearview Cinemas.