'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo': Swede Sensation, By Kurt Loder

A cyber-punk with problems — possibly yours.

Lisbeth Salander may be the first punked-out, mentally unstable heroine in the mystery-thriller genre. She's a computer wizard with a special talent for hacking, and in the sensational Swedish film "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," she's a kick-ass wonder to watch.

Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) works for a Stockholm security firm. In the course of researching a client's case, she becomes involved in the complex affairs of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist who specializes in ripping the lid off of crooked financial shenanigans. Mikael has just lost a big libel suit, and he's decided it'd be best to resign from Millennium, the investigative magazine of which he is also publisher, and get out of town for a while. He accepts an offer from a reclusive industrialist named Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to write a history of his famous family business. When he arrives at Vanger's mansion on a remote, snowy island, however, he learns that the man despises most of his family's members and is convinced that one of them was responsible for the mysterious disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet, some 40 years earlier. Mikael's real job is to find out who that was.

Lisbeth, who followed Mikael's legal tribulations in the press, is convinced he was set up (he was). Hacking into the laptop Mikael has taken with him on the Vanger assignment, she learns what he's actually up to, and decides she can help.

The story is fat with characters, most of them various Vangers, some of them back-in-the-day Nazis, one of them possibly a murderer. There are "Silence of the Lambs" overtones as Mikael and Lisbeth attempt to connect Harriet's disappearance to a series of long-unsolved murders elsewhere in the area; and Mikael's discovery of crucial clues in a group of photographs taken the day Harriet vanished — clues that he slowly, methodically links together — is wonderfully suspenseful.

It's a movie in which there's a lot going on, almost all of it interesting. But Lisbeth, with her hostile glare, her dead-black hair, her many piercings and a full-back tattoo that gives the picture its name — is the film's centerpiece. We learn that she did something terrible when she was a child (exactly what it was only slowly becomes clear), and that she spent time in a mental institution. Since her release, she's been under the control of state-appointed guardians, the latest a man named Bjurman (Peter Andersson). Bjurman is a repulsive sleaze who annoyingly monitors Lisbeth's activities, controls her finances and subjects her to vicious sexual assaults. Realizing there'd be no point in turning him in — who would believe a crazy girl's story? — she instead plots a more direct response; and her return to Bjurman's apartment with a taser and a tattoo needle is one of the most electrifying revenge scenes ever put on film. We're appalled, but exhilarated — this guy really deserves it.

The movie is based on a novel with the more pungent Swedish title "Men Who Hate Women" by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. The book is the first of a best-selling Millennium trilogy that Larsson wrote but didn't live to see published. (He died in 2004.) With its intricate plot and rich characters, this film version seems inevitably headed for an English-language remake. The two succeeding books in the Millennium series have already been filmed, and will soon make their way to this country. The return of Lisbeth Salander — damaged, angry and brilliant — is now eagerly awaited.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Runaways" and "Repo Men," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

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