The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- Film Review

A thriller with scathing social commentary and a dark history lesson

Revolving around an investigative reporter and his unlikely crime-solving partner, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson's posthumous Millennium trilogy of novels were not so much best-sellers as international publishing phenomena. The film adaptation of the first book, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is, like its source material, at once formula thriller, scathing social commentary and dark history lesson. But it's also a more eloquent work; smartly condensing the novel's sprawl, the feature forgoes prosaic detail for cinematic vigor. The result is a character-driven mystery of considerable emotional power, often harrowing and always compelling.

The film broke boxoffice records in Scandinavia, where it opened a year ago and where the two subsequent movies in the series already have been released. Stateside, the Music Box-distributed "Tattoo," which opens March 19, will attract not only fans of the book but art house patrons drawn by strong reviews.

For all his insight on finance and politics, muckraker Larsson's most indelible creation is the title character, a 24-year-old goth fury named Lisbeth Salander, who has a genius for computer hacking and no interest in -- or capacity for -- quotidian niceties. In a stunning performance, Noomi Rapace fully inhabits the role, making Lisbeth's sullen and righteous anger evident in her every glance (she's a woman of few words). The nose-ringed beauty is fascinating because she's far more than the sum of her troubled past, which is divulged gradually. She's one of the story's two truth-seekers, intent on exposing abuses of power; the other is financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Other than digitally, their paths don't cross until more than an hour into the film.

As the story opens, Mikael has been convicted of libeling a corporate chieftain, and Lisbeth has been surveiling him for a client in her capacity as a researcher. He discovers that she's tapping into his laptop and enlists her help in solving a 40-year-old murder. Their investigation takes place in the atmospheric northern chill of Hedeby Island, where Mikael has accepted a lucrative job to fill the months before he begins his jail sentence. Octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), patriarch of a family he despises, wants a last shot at uncovering who among his relatives killed his beloved niece Harriet, a teen who disappeared from the island at a family gathering four decades earlier.

A who's who of the Vanger clan, replete with alcoholics, indifferent parents and card-carrying Nazis, is at first a staggering pileup of information, but screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel and director Niels Arden Oplev ("Portland") turn the exposition into a life force -- from the Internet to hidden cameras, technology is a character in its own right.

Digging into the archives of the local newspaper, Mikael finds grainy images of 16-year-old Harriet on the day of her disappearance. Computer software enables him to animate the snapshots, and the result is a haunting update of Antonioni's photographic mystery in "Blow-Up" (a film released the same year as the fictional Harriet's disappearance). Manipulation of photos gives way to evidence: Across a 1966 summer crowd, Harriet seems to be facing her murderer.

Monsters walk among us, and their crimes are extreme in this bleak yet not-quite-hopeless story, whose Swedish title's literal translation is "Men Who Hate Women." Lisbeth, clearly no stranger to abuse, never is merely a victim. When she turns the tables on the latest monster (Peter Andersson) in her life, there's no real sense of triumph. The film refuses to pawn off false notions of redemption.

It isn't, however, above the hoariest of whodunit conventions (the killer takes ample time to explain his crimes to his next target). Although it sometimes stretches credulity, the lengthy film doesn't feel overlong. Fine performances, especially Rapace's, ignite this cold case, and the clean widescreen cinematography never betrays the project's small-screen origins.

Opens: Friday, March 19 (Music Box Films)

Production: A Yellow Bird production
Cast: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Ewa Froling, Bjorn Granath, Lena Endre
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenwriters: Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel
Based on the novel by: Stieg Larsson
Producer: Soren Staermose
Director of photography: Eric Kress
Additional director of photography: Jens Fischer
Production designer: Niels Sejer
Music: Jacob Groth
Costume designer: Cilla Rorby
Editors: Anne Osterud, Jannus Billeskov Jansen
No rating, 153 minutes