Lately, there has been something of a revitalization of the “who done it” murder mystery in film, a genre that in many ways, like screwball comedies, had found its way to television series and didn’t seem to want to come back. My feeling is that this recent influx started with Tell No One, the very successful French mystery that opened here a couple of years ago. Why this is, is hard to say. It could be cyclical. It could be coincidence. But don’t be surprised if we see more of them, because once something makes money, then all bets are off the table. Two more opened very close to each other this year, both doing well enough at the box office that they are going to be remade, like Tell No One, in the U.S.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish mystery based on a wildly successful series of books written by Stieg Larson. I have read that the success of mysteries in Sweden, especially extremely violent ones, are something of a mystery in itself since the Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest murder rates in the world. And whatever else one might say about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it is extremely violent. I went with a friend who had no idea what he was getting into and his first response was how intense it was. No argument there. At the same time, though there was much I enjoyed in the film, especially once the mystery itself got going, the intensity often seemed to have no real purpose. As a result, the screenplay, by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, seemed a bit clunky to me. It starts off with two separate plot lines. Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nygvist) is an investigative reporter sued for libel. When he loses, he not only has to pay damages, he also has to serve six months in prison. Since he has some time to get his affairs in order before entering the clink, he is approached by the oldest member of a very wealthy family, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the murder of his niece from forty years ago. This is where this section of the mystery never really made a lot of sense to me. His niece disappeared and her body was never found, so it’s a little unclear why he thinks she was killed. He believes that one of his relatives, rapacious capitalists, some with ties to Nazism, did it, but he can’t provide a motive other than that they’re rapacious capitalists, some with ties to Nazism—which makes them assholes, but not murderers. Every year, Vanger receives a framed flower on his birthday. He thinks it’s from the murderer to torment him about his niece. But if that is true, and the murderer is one of the family, wouldn’t all he have to do is figure out which of his relatives were out of town in the location of where the flowers were sent from in order to solve the mystery? Actually, everything…everything…suggests that the niece is still alive, but the screenplay skips over this lack of logic. It also skips over why Vanger waited so long to look into the murder; if he hired any detectives earlier, it’s not mentioned; and Blomkvist would be smart enough to have asked. The set up is just clumsy and, well, clunky, as has already been said. There is also a second plot unfolding at this time concerning Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman who is a brilliant hacker. Well, troubled is only the tip of the iceberg. Though of age, she has to have her expenses and the way she spends her money overseen by a government appointee; the reasons are vague, though they may make sense to someone who is Scandinavian (a friend of mine said that in the book, Lisbeth has some form of Asperger’s or something like that, which to a degree suggests the need for a guardian, but still makes one wonder). She’s also mercilessly raped and sexually abused by this appointee. What this has to do with the murder itself is unclear; actually, in one way, it’s very clear: it has nothing to do with the murder, but still, there you have it. Lisbeth becomes involved because she did some hacking work for Vanger and became interested in Blomkvist and decided to help him solve the murder. Once all this is over (an hour perhaps into the movie), the mystery itself starts in and the plotline becomes much more involving. It all starts with a rather brilliant observation by Blomkvist that he makes while looking at old newspaper photos and from there on in, it becomes one of those Miss Marple/Hercule Poirot mysteries with all sorts of clever twists and turns. It’s all somewhat convoluted, though at the same time, it all does come together and make sense. It’s hard to say it ever rises above an Agatha Christie mystery, but the raw looking cinematography that makes everything feel dark and gloomy even in broad daylight, and the demytholizing of Swedish sympathies with Nazism are a plus, as is Noomi Rapace’s intense (that word again, though here somewhat of an understatement) portrayal of Lisbeth. The final ending, of Lisbeth going off somewhere and being rich and glamorous is supposed to mean something, but what exactly is vague and may ultimately reveal the problem with the movie (which may or may not go back to the book). The story is more about Lisbeth than about Blomkvist; in fact, Blomkvist at times is more along for the ride. But the screenwriters weren’t able to quite able to focus the story around her the way it probably needs to be.
The Secret in Their Eyes is the Argentine winner of the Best Foreign Language Film of 2010 for the Oscars. What’s often interesting in watching foreign films is to notice the differences in the way certain things are done than in the U.S. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it is surprising that libel is a criminal matter whereas in the U.S. it’s only a civil one and that there are government guardians appointed for people who suffer from such problems as Asperger’s (both of which might make it difficult for the screenwriters of the American remake). In The Secret of Their Eyes, the central character, Benjamin Esposito, is a federal justice agent, a position that one doesn’t find on such shows as Law & Order. It seems to be a job (not even requiring a high school diploma) in which someone prepares a case for prosecution, something between police detective and District Attorney (you can also add here that Judges also serve as lawyers and investigators and some government officials have the ability to pardon criminals in secret). There is an odd similarity between this movie and …Dragon Tattoo. Both mysteries began to unravel based on an observation made in looking at old photographs. It’s as if both screenwriters (here Eduardo Sacheri, who also wrote the book, and Juan Jose Campanella, who also directed) had channeled the screenplay of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, in which a fashion photographer captures something suspicious while taking snaps of a couple cootchi-cooing in a park. There’s also a similarity in that both have brutal rapes as part of their plots, but I’m not sure what that says and I’m not sure I want to know. It’s not easy to write about a rape and show empathy for the victim while not exploiting the situation and I’m not sure either writer or director succeeded with that here. The Secret of Their Eyes also has a certain clunkiness to its plotting as well in that there are actually two through lines. One is the solution of a brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young woman married to a mild mannered young man who never gives up hope of finding the real killer; the second is the romance between Benjamin and a Judge, Irene. The romance is the least satisfactory aspect of the script. It’s one of those unrequited affairs where Irene is so out of Benjamin’s league he can’t bring himself to court her and Irene, as a woman, can’t make the first step and tell Benjamin how she feels (you know, like in those films by John Hughes). It’s something of a cliché and the two actors (Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil) never generate much heat. The love story never feels that closely connected to the mystery either, and the ending where Benjamin decides to go for it and declare his feelings feel a bit unsatisfactory, as if the real reason for the woman’s rape and murder was to eventually bring these two characters together. The investigation of the death is much more intriguing and comes with some nifty detective work and leads to the best performance in the movie, Javier Godnio as the murderer, one of those people driven to become a fascist due to feelings of sexual inadequacy (like The Conformist). You can feel the rage and evil sweating from his body and he has a wonderful smirk when he realizes he has all the power. The surprise ending is truly a surprise and provides a satisfactory emotional resolution to the story.