On the surface, the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a classic, if exceptionally grueling, who-done-it-style mystery case. At its center, we have out of work journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), recently framed for libel and looking for something to sink his investigative teeth into, and Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the aging CEO determined to find out what happened to his niece, who disappeared some 40 years back. Against the wishes of Vanger’s large and wealthy family, Blomkvist tries to retrace the final hours of the then-young Harriet through photos and aged leads but finds himself dead-ending, until a young, punkish hacker named Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) comes along to lend a hand—and an eerily photographic memory.
Still, below all the clue chasing and plot twisting, Niels Arden Oplev’s thriller—based on Stieg Larsson’s novel Men Who Hate Women—is fueled by heaps and heaps of anguish. Not long into the proceedings, we realize that Lisbeth is the tortured soul at the center of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s storyline. She’s smart, vengeful, and can kick more ass than any of Tarantino’s femme fatales, but she’s also driven by a deep-seeded anger that stems from years of abuse and rape. As Lisbeth, Rapace is nothing short of haunting; she’s dead-eyed, exacting, and detached when she needs to be, and yet we still empathize through fleeting glimpses of what’s beneath her tough and thick exterior. Meanwhile, Nyqvist’s Mikael provides a strong presence, and subtle reminder to both Lisbeth and us that not all men are vile beasts.
As a director, Oplev presents a collection of scenes that nearly perfectly capture the grim, twisted, and painful elements of Larsson’s writing through intensely detailed, timed, and angled shots of sexual deviations and murderous aftermaths. That those scenes are downright hard to watch is, in the end, only a testament to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s staying power. While resolution may be found in the film’s final half hour, Oplev’s vision will undoubtedly stick with you for days.