The late Swedish author Steig Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium Trilogy of bleak crime novels gets its initial, bracing cinematic treatment in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a chilly film that deftly condenses the sprawling exposition of the first book into a taut, violent, troubling and deeply compelling experience.
Drawn from the novel whose original Swedish title translates as “Men Who Hate Women,” this adaptation is densely plotted and slightly overlong and packs in enough serial murder, S&M depravity, stark nudity, cold-blooded brutality, rape and mutilation to scare away the overly sensitive and merely curious.
But hardcore fans of Larsson’s sharply intelligent writing and his gloomy Scandinavian aesthetic will be rewarded with a film that’s scrupulously faithful to the author’s characters and to his scathing social commentary.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (in Swedish with subtitles) introduces us to the mismatched pair of crime solvers that propel Larsson’s three novels – his Nordic, anti-Nick and Nora Charles, if you will.
They are crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a world-weary knight errant recently convicted of slander for an investigative piece gone askew, and Lisbeth Salander (a wondrous Noomi Rapace), a 20-something goth hellion with a genius for computer hacking and an utter disdain for social graces.
The duo become reluctant allies when Blomkvist, awaiting his prison term, is hired by elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to look into the disappearance, and presumed murder, of his beloved teenage niece at a family gathering 40 years earlier. The pierced and surly Salander, working for a private security firm, is first hired to vet Blomkvist for the job but soon finds herself aiding in his sleuthing efforts.
The complex investigation takes the pair to the gray, frigid climes of Hedeby Island, where the Vanger clan – a creepy nest of drunkards, greedheads, abusive parents and closet Nazis and anti-Semites – has its ancestral estate.
As the case unfolds, director Niels Arden Oplev adroitly inserts worlds of backstory revealing the deviant horrors of the decades-old crime along with more recent horrors of rape and torture that haunt the beautiful Salander and answer for her furious nihilism.
The stark story gets a needed jolt of full-blooded humanity in the performances and personalities of the two leads. Nyqvist lends a rueful wisdom and wry, dark humor to Blomkvist that puts him in league with such noble, weathered sleuths as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. And Rapace throws off exhilarating sparks of sexual energy and righteous anger as the clenched and guarded Salander.
Larsson is said to have numbered among his influences in the genre such writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Sara Paretsky. But Thomas Harris and screen adaptations of his “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” come most readily to mind as kindred tales to this harrowing, thrilling film. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is every bit as spine-tingling.
A note: The second and third novels in the trilogy – “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” – have been adapted as Swedish film productions but have yet to be released in American markets. Also, an English-language adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is reportedly being planned by director David Fincher (“Se7en” and “Fight Club”) for release in 2012.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Gunnel Lindblom, Ingvar Hirdwall and Tomas Köhler
(Recommended for adults, due to sexual themes, nudity and violence)