The title of the novel and film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo contains a pinch of sexism. At 24 years old, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is hardly a girl, but an ingenious anti-social hacker who wears leather, goth makeup, piercings, and the titular tat like body armor. Rapace's performance suggests the computer savvy and poor personal skills of "24's" Chloe in Angelina Jolie's body.
The original novel's title translates from its native Swedish as Men Who Hate Women, which signals its thematic targets far more directly. The first of a posthumously published mystery trilogy by late journalist Stieg Larsson, the book became a bestselling phenomenon of Dan Brown-esque proportions. Director Niels Arden Oplev filmed the trilogy concurrently and the first installment became the highest-grossing European release of 2009. Newcomers to the series may find that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo relies on a workmanlike plot and direction worthy of a slick, exploitative TV series, but Rapace's intriguing character keeps a tight grip on your attention.
The film begins as muckraking magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) loses a libel case brought by a powerful industrialist. Disgraced, on leave, and awaiting a prison sentence, Mikael takes a job offer from an elderly tycoon. The tycoon's beautiful 16-year-old niece disappeared 40 years earlier. Much of Mikael's investigation takes place on an Agatha Christie-worthy island estate and involves such dirty family secrets as Nazi party memberships.
Lisbeth did the background check on Mikael and keeps tabs on the mystery by spying on his computer. She faces her own challenge from her repulsive parole officer, who abuses his authority for increasingly ugly sexual favors. When Lisbeth turns the tables, the film resembles a male-written feminine revenge fantasy, like a classed-up I Spit on Your Grave. Rapace's performance grounds a potentially ridiculous role, and conveys Lisbeth's damaged, guarded psyche. The audience cheers when Lisbeth exacts poetic justice, but Rapace brings out the role's vulnerability.
Lisbeth's more exotic details, like her black lipstick and lesbian girlfriend, conveniently disappear when she cracks a clue and joins Mikael's investigation. Their chemistry gives the two-and-half hour whodunit a welcome jolt as it covers familiar territory such as Google searches, enhanced photos and chases. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo suffers the bad luck of opening in American theaters so soon after Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, a book-based thriller with a fraction of the twists and violence, yet exponentially more suspense. Compared to Polanski's paranoia-inducing command of cinema, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo plays more like a promising pilot for an undemanding TV series.