Stieg Larsson will forever be enshrined as one of the entertainment world's unfortunates. Like another Larson—Jonathan, author of the musical Rent—Larsson died just before he could reap the rewards from his artistic labors. The posthumous success of the two 's' Larsson has dwarfed that of the one 's' Larson: his three completed novels (out of a projected ten) featuring computer genius Lisbeth Salander and investigative reporter Mikael Blomqvist have become worldwide bestsellers, ubiquitous in every country. All three have been filmed in the original Swedish, and soon will be filmed again in English.
The first of the Swedish films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has been released in the U.S., with the remaining two—The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest—awaiting imminent release at this writing. The film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was my first encounter with the Larsson phenomenon, and based on that I am looking forward to the next two.
Niels Arden Oplev's film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, from a screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, gives fans of noir-tinged thrillers everything they could possibly want: a dark, threatening atmosphere, lethal danger behind every corner, corruption seeping into society from the top down. That last point is central to Larsson, a left-wing journalist who—like his character Blomqvist—specialized in exposing corporate corruption and extreme-right hate groups. Every frame of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo oozes with contempt and loathing for those who use money or positions of authority to act as predators on society, with women always their special targets. The Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo says it all—Man som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women).
The story of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is so familiar by now that I will spend little time recounting it. Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), facing jail after being framed for libel, is hired by shipping magnate Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate what happened to Vanger's beloved niece Harriet, who vanished from the family's private island more than four decades before. Because the island was virtually sealed off the day of Harriet's disappearance, Vanger is certain a member of his large, loathsome family was responsible.
Blomqvist's investigation of the mystery runs parallel with the story of Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a moody, tattooed Goth with a criminal past that remains mysterious for most of the film's running time. A computer whiz who can hack any known system, Lisbeth has problems that make Blomqvist's look like an unpaid parking ticket. They start with Bjurman (Peter Andersson), the parole officer from Hell, who forces sadistic sex on Lisbeth as a prerequisite for not sending her back to jail. (Lisbeth's eventual revenge on Bjurman is both thoroughly appropriate and gratifyingly painful.)
Millions of people already know the story of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but for those who don't, I will try not to give away too much. Suffice it to say that Lisbeth and Blomqvist finally meet about halfway through the film. Together they uncover a decades-long series of murders, and their investigations culminate in a horrifying climax that is only the prelude to a truly surprising and poignant end.
Superbly photographed, edited, and acted (the cast includes such former Ingmar Bergman stalwarts as Ewa Froling and Gunnel Lindblom), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a must for thriller fans. At 148 minutes, it seems not one second too long. The film's angry power is hard to resist, but you will find yourself averting your eyes from the more intense scenes. (This is not a film for the squeamish.) A viewer might be forgiven for seeing Lisbeth Salander as a 21st-century variation on "The Perils of Pauline;" she is so unfortunate that she can't enter a subway station without being attacked by thugs. Nevertheless. Lisbeth makes an unforgettable heroine, and Noomi Rapace captures perfectly the tough, wily vulnerability of a victim who has learned to be a survivor.
Whereas Lisbeth is forced to wear her toughness on her sleeve, Ree Dolly—the heroine of Debra Granik's Winter's Bone—is a survivor of a quieter sort. Like Lisbeth, the teenage Ree has learned all about staying alive in an unfriendly world, except that her world is not the underside of Stockholm but the hardscrabble hills of the Missouri Ozarks.
Deserted by her methamphetamine-cooking dad Jessup, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) has dropped out of school to care for her younger brother and sister and her severely depressed, speechless mother. Life goes on, in a hand-to-mouth fashion, until the day the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up at the Dollys' cabin. Jessup has skipped bail, the sheriff tells Ree, and he put up the cabin as his surety. Jessup has one week to show up at court, or the cabin is forfeit.
Winter's Bone is the story of Ree's search for her deadbeat dad, and how in the process her already hostile world gets exponentially nastier. As presented by screenwriters Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the Ozarks are an insular, unforgiving region, where the residents learn early on to mind their business and not go snooping into other peoples'. As the daughter of a crank-cooker, Ree learned that code earlier than most. She may have wanted to finish high school and join the Army—a scene toward the beginning, in which Ree visits her old high school and watches her former ROTC classmates drill, tells us volumes about her—but she accepts that she has to take care of her family, with little expectation of help from anyone. "Don't ever ask for what should be offered," Ree tells her kid brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and that more or less sums up the life lessons Ree has learned.
Searching for her father, Ree learns she didn't know the half of it. She does not willingly approach the vicious criminals her father worked for, but she must to prevent her family from being thrown out in the woods. Her dire situation, however, melts no hearts. When a careless word means that somebody gets a ten-year stretch in Leavenworth, people who come around asking questions—no matter the reason—can expect to pay a price. "We warned you," says Merab (Dale Dickey), wife of the boss of the local meth ring. "Why didn't you listen?" Even blood ties—once the unbreakable bond in the Ozarks—mean little once meth enters the picture. Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree's extremely scary uncle, makes that excruciatingly plain.
Winter's Bone won major prizes at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and deserved to. It is a wonderful film, seamlessly mixing scenes of delicate lyricism and white-knuckle suspense. It is utterly contemporary, yet has the rhythm and feel of an ancient folk tale. The theme of innocence unprotected and forced to fight for itself is the most resonant in all of literature; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo exploits that theme artfully in the context of an urban thriller, but Winter's Bone uses it in its purest, most heartrending form. Ree Dolly is not Lisbeth Salander. She has no technological skills, no elaborate plots for revenge. All she has is courage and a fierce love for her family. Armed with those, like a heroine of old, she is led into places of darkness that few have the misfortune to enter.
Granik's direction seldom calls attention to itself; a brief black-and-white dream sequence is as arty as it gets. Yet she burns the film into your memory. It is perhaps the greatest tribute to her gifts that you find yourself cringing from scenes that suggest unimaginable horror yet show no gore at all. (Winter's Bone, in which the violence is mostly suggested, has an R rating, the same as the vastly more graphic Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Why?)
What most viewers will take away from Winter's Bone, however, is the memory of some truly great acting, especially by nineteen-year-old Jennifer Lawrence. I had never seen Lawrence before this film, and I will be interested to see her future roles, because now it is impossible for me to separate her from Ree. There is nothing actressy in the slightest about her performance; she just seems to be this young woman of extraordinary courage and grit, fighting for her life right in front of us.
Some of Lawrence's best moments are those in which the little girl forced to grow up too fast comes to the fore. The saddest scene in the film is when, sitting with her catatonic mother, Ree begs her to speak one more time, tell her what she should do, be a mother once again. The mother, and the hills beyond, are silent.
It would be an injustice to close a review of Winter's Bone without mentioning the music, which is chosen with unusual thoughtfulness and care. (Dickon Hinchliffe is credited as the film's composer, but several names recur on the soundtrack, including singer Merideth Sisco and bands Blackberry Winter and White River Music Company. John Hawkes also contributes a song.) The music creates a mood of poignant irony throughout the film, from the opening credits on. Seeing the Dollys' dilapidated cabin for the first time, we hear Sisco singing a slow, a cappella version of "The Missouri Waltz." What greater irony could there be than to begin this film, of all films, with a song so closely associated with a President of the United States?
As Winter's Bone progresses, Granik suggests strongly that if any strong ties remain in the Ozarks, they exist in its music. In one scene toward the middle of the film, Ree stops at a house where a hootenanny is in progress. The voice we hear, coming from a heavyset, pie-faced woman in late middle age, is as pure as the most isolated mountain stream. The point is driven home at the end, when Ree's kid sister Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson) plucks for the first time—and assuredly not for the last--on her father's banjo. Family ties may be rent asunder, but the music endures.