The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; R, 152 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

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 Maybe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is such a sensation because it doesn’t want to seem sensational. How curiously quaint, how appealingly mature, that a conventional psychological thriller should have the confidence to capture our attention simply by means of its fluency with convention. Maybe it also has something to do with being European.

Noomi Rapace stars as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel Men Who Hate Women.

A dubiously disgraced journalist (Michael Nyqvist) goes to work for an elderly tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of the old man’s niece (Ewa Fröling) some 40 years ago. Suspects include pretty much everybody else in the Vanger family, who together put the nasty in “dynasty.” Why any of them or anyone else would have wanted to harm the damsel, then just a teenager, is a mystery. But for the best investigative journalists, mystery is a muse. Besides, somebody sure did seem to be murdering young women back then, and in a rather gruesome fashion.

Helpfully, our stoic and heroic sleuth forms an unlikely partnership with the film’s eponymous heroine, a disturbed bisexual goth-chick computer hacker (Noomi Rapace) who has her own reasons for wanting this case closed—and for resenting male authority. These reasons are gradually elaborated over the course of two and a half hours, which never feels too long as the mystery steadily deepens. Even at its rangiest, nothing is superfluous. 

You may already know that director Niels Arden Oplev’s film was derived (by writers Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) from Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel, the first in a posthumously published trilogy. You may not know that in Sweden the book was called Men Who Hate Women, which should tip you off to its preoccupation with sadistic cycles of abuse, retribution and concealment. But don’t take that English alteration to signify a softening of the material. What The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as a title, lacks in detachment it makes up for by being reductive, objectifying and infantilizing all at once. Let’s just say that Larsson’s preoccupations do come through in this film, and clearly enough to make for an enlivening counterpoint to the dignity and distance you’d expect of a Scandanavian writer.

It’s most considerate of the movie to try and not to get too cheesy. The acting is consistently fine, and the scenes of computer-abetted investigation contain some marvelously paced, impressive cinematic revelations. For a few brief moments it’s actually hard to believe that The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo could have worked as a novel at all. Oplev’s biggest score, however, is the casting of Rapace, who here redeems the ingratiating title character—albeit the most popular character in an extremely popular book—and officially launches an unequivocally sensational movie career.

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