Mikael Blomkvist is a "journalist with ideals ... a watchdog," report his microphone-wielding peers as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo unfurls on-screen. He's a crusader akin to the Swedish journalist behind the Millennium trilogy (of which The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first novel) by author Stieg Larsson. An expert on right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations, Larsson put his experience to good use in the trilogy debut, using it to manufacture a mystery mined from the darkest elements of humanity -- sadism, serial murder, sexual abuse, racism -- and illuminated by a search for truth. Director Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation is true to the book, both in spirit and in detail.
As the modern-day thriller begins, Blomkvist (Michael Nygvist) is a fallen hero convicted of libel under suspicious circumstances. Enter Henrik Vanger, a wealthy industrialist hoping to hire Blomkvist to solve a 40-year-old enigma. Years ago his beloved great-niece, Harriet, vanished from the Vanger family haven on Hedeby island, and it's haunted Henrik ever since. Every birthday he receives a framed flower mailed from far-flung locales, and he's convinced the sender is Harriet's killer -- most likely, he believes, one of his "small-minded, greedy" relatives. Perhaps his fanatic brother or, if he wasn't dead, Gottfried, Harriet's alcoholic father. But before Henrik makes Blomkvist an offer he can't refuse, he hires 24-year-old computer hacker genius Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to vet Blomkvist. Not only does she conclude he's clean, she believes the libel charge was a setup. Lisbeth continues to shadow Mikael's computer, becomes intrigued by his Vanger case, and emails him a clue she's uncovered. From then on the odd couple team up and grow unexpectedly close.
A Goth, pierced, petite pixie in a black leather jacket and boots and armed with a sullen attitude and calculating distance, Lisbeth, aka "the girl with the dragon tattoo," is an enigma herself, more compelling even than the Vanger plot. Lisbeth makes this story unforgettable, playing a rare heroine not easily defined or defeated. She's kick-ass, yes, but also wounded, childlike, deadly, lost, loyal ... and arguably a symbol for voiceless female victims. Lisbeth seems to be a lightning rod for misogynist brutality, as excruciatingly exhibited by her predatory court-appointed guardian, Bjurman. A victim that strikes back, she's less a feminist superhero than a survivor, who under attack appears as terrified as she is enraged, plotting revenge while she's helpless. Often with only the subtlest quiver, Rapace brilliantly communicates the emotions rippling beneath Lisbeth's stoic surface -- though Lisbeth's not the only woman that suffers at the hands of men in a film whose Swedish title translates to "Men Who Hate Women." Yet the deeply disturbing, sometimes overwhelming scenes of violence exude a purposeful realism (vs. the gratuitous aggression in many Hollywood movies), a realism that mirrors the novel's blunt journalistic and moral sensibility -- and definitely has something to say.
Oplev artfully fuels the suspense and atmosphere with a tableau of an icy, desolate Hedeby island with a still, sunny surface that belies the secrets and danger beneath, and dramatic touches like animating Harriet's face, frozen in a black-and-white photo, to turn to look in fear at her killer. In the end, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an intelligent thriller that not only thrills, but has a conscience and a sense of justice (let's call the conscience Mikael, and justice Lisbeth). It has no need or time for exploitative eroticism, epic explosions, or actors with super-model looks. It's worth watching more than once.