At over two and a half hours, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features plenty of the three Rs—research, rape, and revenge. Oddly, the latter two have little to do with the central plot, which involves a disgraced journalist who is hired to investigate a cold case about the disappearance of a teenage girl some 40 years prior.
Based on the first of a trilogy of unpublished novels by late author Stieg Larsson, the film took Sweden’s Oscar-equivalent for 2009’s Best Picture and Best Actress and is already slated for an American remake. That actress is Noomi Rapace, unforgettable here as Lisbeth, the titular 24-year-old goth punk who’s angry, antisocial, and readily violent. But she’s also quite brilliant and works as a hacker for a security company. At the beginning of the film, Lisbeth is tasked with surveilling Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a magazine writer who is found guilty of libel against a shady businessman. He’s sentenced to prison but has six months until incarceration. On Christmas, he’s called to the remote estate of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the elderly former CEO of his family’s syndicate of companies. Henrik wants Mikael to spend his remaining free time re-examining the 1966 disappearance of his teenage niece, Harriet. The cops have long given up on the case, but Henrik is hoping for some closure before he dies.
So Mikael agrees to move to the estate and do some sleuthing, starting with Henrik’s family—a “pretty unpleasant bunch,” according to him. And how: Their general money-grubbiness aside, some of the Vangers were also Nazis. Meanwhile, Lisbeth’s assignment to trail Mikael has officially ended, but she continues to hack into his computer anyway, convinced he was set up. When she sees a potential clue in one of his emails containing a code from Harriet’s diary that he just can’t crack, Lisbeth figures out the answer and not-so-anonymously forwards it to him. Soon they’re partners on the case, uncovering the likelihood of a serial killer and the inevitable tangles a good thriller supplies.
Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev directs, lending the story an air of often-unexpected creepiness just as it’s becoming too clinical. (Unless watching someone leaf through stacks of invoices thrills you.) Depending on your level of cynicism, the answer to only one of those aforementioned tangles is beyond belief, quite an achievement considering similar movies usually hope to frighten you enough that you forgive the plot’s laziness. Nyqvist, a darker-haired and less Bond-ish Daniel Craig, is appealing and realistic as the smart-but-imperfect Mikael—how often does an investigator admit that he needs some whippersnapper’s help?
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does contain a lot of ugliness, including Lisbeth’s backstory and her current nightmare with a new guardian (she’s spent time in a psych ward, and possibly prison) who feels free to assault her as he pleases. The resolution to the Vanger case is also sickening, the worst of it taking place in a Saw-like warehouse as their suspect describes his rapes and murders, at one point using the word “fantastic” and calling what he does a “hobby.” The film shares a theme with the recently released Red Riding trilogy, but given all the violence involved, it’s somehow a lighter sit—the script has occasionally levity, and, more important, portrays Lisbeth as someone who can give as good (or bad) as she gets. Yes, her actions essentially communicate the message that two wrongs make a right. But after you see what she goes through, her strength to fight back makes you want to cheer.