Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson must have had a million stories rattling around in his head. An influential political writer and lecturer, his career was spent exposing white-power organizations and mapping Swedish right-wing extremism, actions that garnered him multiple death threats and forced him to live in seclusion.
A law that requires newlyweds to put their address on record, meant he never married his lifelong companion Eva Gabrielsson, leaving her without rights to his estate following a fatal coronary in 2004. At the time of his death, Larsson had completed--though never published--three of a planned 10-part crime novel series. With the posthumous publishing of his Millennium Trilogy, Larsson became the second-best-selling author in the world in 2008. The first of the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, arrives in film form rife with the brutality, ugliness and thrilling mind-mazes of its source material.
The film deals with two vastly different but determined researchers. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a disgraced investigative journalist, sentenced to a three-month jail sentence after losing a libel case against a corrupt industrialist. Young gothic punk Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is the brilliant computer hacker who has evidence of his innocence, but doesn't want to get involved. With six months before his sentence begins, Mikael is hired by a wealthy corporate tycoon to examine the cold-case disappearance of his niece 40 years prior.
Whether because of her own curiosity or due to a personal history of injustice--pieces of which are discovered throughout the film--Lisbeth keeps digital tabs on Mikael's progress, finally breaking her silence to provide him with a pivotal clue. She eventually agrees to assist his investigation, and the yin and yang pair uncover a corporate coverup of serial murder, ritualistic sex and a family history of anti-Semitism.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an unusual sort of mystery, part of the rare class of thrillers in which unraveling the enigma of the central characters is as vital to the story as the focal whodunit. The two protagonists don't even meet until an hour into the film, this protracted prologue focusing on Mikael's legal woes and a vicious cat-and-mouse struggle waged between Lisbeth and her sadistic, sex-crazed legal guardian.
Like a bad-ass Jason Bourne, Lisbeth is resourceful, whip-smart and clearly a little unstable, but with one crucial difference: She possesses perfect recall, every injustice and destructive event in her life remembered with exact clarity. While some travesties are explored in the first of this trilogy--including three disturbingly vivid scenes of rape--we get a sense of deeper, darker secrets to be uncovered in subsequent films.
Actress Rapace gives a stunning performance as the taciturn titular heroine, her cold and controlled facade only melting in small, believably shy moments, bolstered by earnest, instrumental support from Nyqvist.
Although the run time is more than two and a half hours, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't feel overly long, the dual examination of its central mystery and the inner lives of its characters serving as a sustained, satisfying introduction to the larger, three-part story. Filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev provides steady direction, emphasizing the story, not the sensationalistic explosions, car chases and fist fights that are bound to be featured in the upcoming Hollywood iteration.
With the two sequels already finished and awaiting distribution, Dragon Tattoo is yet another top-notch Swedish export that's sure to be imitated but rarely equaled.