Late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published novel gets a competently gripping adaptation in director Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The movie takes its time entangling a reporter-turned-investigator and hacking punkette into its multigenerational family mystery, but once it gets there it becomes a solid old-fashioned slab of detective fiction. Not old-fashioned in the Hitchcock sense, but solid, conventional narrative filmmaking in The Silence of the Lambs sense.
When the movie opens, investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) has just lost a libel case filed by a wealthy Swedish businessman, causing Blomkvist to leave his publication in disgrace and await his prison sentence. Freshly unemployed, he’s contacted by Henrik Vanger (Taube), an elderly member of the family that operates an industrial empire. Vanger lives in an expansive mansion on remote Hedeby Island, which is dotted with other family members’ estates. Back in the 1960s, Vanger’s favorite niece Harriet went missing, and he presumes she was murdered. The bridge to the island was closed, meaning only family members were on the island at the time, and her body was never found. A police investigation turned up nothing, though the now-retired officer is still a tad haunted by Harriet’s disappearance. Vanger believes her murdered, because every year on his birthday he receives a framed pressed flower in the mail from some faraway random locale. It’s the same gift Harriet used to give him, and he feels it’s her killer haunting him.
Blomkvist agrees, but doesn’t think he’ll turn up anything, though he catches a break when Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) enters his life. Vanger hired a private security firm to vet Blomkvist before hiring him, and Lisbeth was the computer-hacking background checker. She deemed Blomkvist completely clean, so she hacks his computer and follows his investigation remotely, eventually emailing him a hint that helps him break a code.
Lisbeth is the titular tattooed woman, and in Rapace’s hands she’s a gem. Leather-clad, skin inked, face pierced, hair dyed jet black, Lisbeth wears her distrust of everything and everyone around her on her coldly expressionless face, and her social awkwardness is so severe she comes across as borderline cognitively or psychologically impaired. Something in her past made her this way, but Lisbeth is no defenseless victim: She can, and will, turn the tables on any threat who thinks he can exploit her.
Once Blomkvist convinces Lisbeth to work with him, their investigation — and the movie — really picks up pace. Solving linguistic puzzles, poring over old photos, and good old talking to people steers Blomkvist and Lisbeth toward a series of unsolved murders leading up to Harriet’s disappearance. And soon, they find themselves considering mystical religious motivations, confronting anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies, wondering if a serial killer is still at large, and uncovering old Vanger family secrets that none of Henrik’s relatives wants to discuss. Director Oplev handles all these leads and possible misdirections with consummate precision, cutting together a thrilling, expertly paced journey into a truly unsettling place, where the occasional flashes of absolutely brutal violence are as uncomfortable as they should be.
That arresting horror is built into the novel: Its original Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor — ”men who hate women” — and here the feral misogyny that populates the crime genre looks and feels as despicable as it is. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a trilogy, and all three have been made into Swedish-released movies starring the dynamite duo of Rapace and Nyqvist. It doesn’t aspire to reinvent the crime flick, it merely delivers the genre. But, goddamn, does it deliver. •