The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo arrives in Knoxville with an impressive pedigree and plenty of fanfare. Adapted from Stieg Larsson's wildly popular novel, the knife-edged Swedish thriller had already grossed more than $100 million in European theaters before it even opened in the United Kingdom, making it Scandinavia's first bona fide blockbuster and Europe's highest-earning film of 2009. It landed Golden Beetles, the Swedish equivalent of the Oscars, for the producers and its lead actress, and two sequels are already finished and awaiting U.S. releases later this year. Its reputation precedes it, but does the film live up to such lofty expectations?
The short answer is yes, thanks in large part to a gifted young actress's realization of an intriguing character. The film has plenty more going for it—a tightly plotted mystery, assured pacing, complex characters, and more than a little nerve-jangling suspense—but it's Noomi Rapace's spectacular performance as the title character that you'll remember long after the closing credits.
Rapace stars as Lisbeth Salander, a damaged young woman who makes it a point to give at least as good as she gets. Still on parole for crimes that we'll find out about later in the film, Lisbeth works as a researcher for a security firm, where she is asked to investigate disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Blomkvist has been convicted of libel against a powerful tycoon, and is about to serve a short prison sentence. Lisbeth's client has an idea about how Blomkvist should spend the weeks leading up to his confinement: Aging industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) is still mourning the disappearance of his favorite niece some 40 years ago, and the old man wants Blomkvist to uncover, once and for all, the girl's fate. Vanger is convinced she was murdered by a member of her own family. There's no shortage of suspects, as Blomkvist finds when he sets up shop in Vanger's island compound. The Vangers are a mean-spirited and conniving group, and the skeletons in their closets aren't necessarily of the figurative sort.
It's going to take more than Blomkvist's old-school, shoe-leather investigative techniques to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger's disappearance, though, and that's where Lisbeth, a brilliant computer hacker with a photographic memory, comes in. An expertly staged series of events finally brings the unlikely pair of sleuths together, and it's here that the film finds its stride. It gradually transforms from a cerebral, Agatha Christie-style locked-room mystery into an unnerving serial killer tale reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs. The transition isn't always a smooth one, and readers of Val McDermid and John Connolly will see many of the film's plot twists coming.
The film's characters, particularly its mismatched detectives, make up for any shortcomings in the occasionally by-the-numbers plot. Blomkvist is likeable and sympathetic, but Lisbeth is the one we really want to watch. Tightly wound and unpredictable, she practically hums with pent-up anger and violent potential; early in the film, she sends a group of would-be attackers running, screaming, into a train station, letting us know there'll be no damsel in distress shenanigans here. Mess with Lisbeth at your own risk, as one character learns in one of the film's most talked about—and most disturbing—scenes.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. If you've read much about the film, you know there's some nasty stuff here. A rape scene, in particular, is hard to take, though it's not as graphic as you might think. It doesn't come close to those 10 soul-killing minutes of Irreversible, but it's disturbing and gut-wrenching all the same. It also isn't the least bit gratuitous, as it sets the stage for the film's other controversial scene—one that subverts the now-familiar "torture porn" trope in fiendishly clever ways, and might leave you a little horrified at your response to it. Aside from a few grisly crime-scene photographs, the film isn't gory, but it gets its punches in all the same.
As titles go, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn't tell us much. The novel's original Swedish title, which translates to Men Who Hate Women, is far more revealing. Misogyny, and our response to it, is one of the central themes of the film; the other is the idea of the past as a living, feral thing that lurks around every corner. Make one false step, and it'll have its teeth in your throat. It's a theme that has served mystery writers well, and director Niels Arden Oplev put it to expert use here.
Predictably, Sony Pictures is fast-tracking an English-language adaptation. David Fincher will direct, and the search is underway for the actress who will play Lisbeth (Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart are rumored to be frontrunners). Take my advice, though, and don't wait; the Swedes got it resoundingly right the first time.