Noomi Rapace plays the enigmatic young investigator Lisbeth Salander. (Knut Koivisto / Music Box…)
Everyone has secrets in the "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a mind-bending and mesmerizing thriller that takes its time unlocking one mystery only to uncover another, all to chilling and immensely satisfying effect.
The film is based on the first crime novel in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, and Danish director Niels Arden Oplev has somehow found a way to adapt one of Europe's most popular contemporary books, a bestselling sensation here as well, and still infuse it with surprise.
The bones of the story remain -- the 40-year-old unsolved case of a missing girl, a disgraced financial journalist, and the enigmatic young private investigator with that dragon tattoo. But Oplev hasn't been shy in asking screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel to strip away much of the complex plotting that makes the book such a page turner but would have made a mess of a film.
The ominous mood is set with the arrival of a pressed flower in a simple frame on the 82nd birthday of Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the head of a sprawling, family-owned industrial empire in Sweden, where the film takes place. The flowers have come with each birthday since his niece Harriet vanished when she was 16, presumed dead at the hands of a killer. They line the wall, a macabre reminder of a tradition Harriet began as a child. The aging mogul is convinced the killer is in the family, the flowers a taunt; he wants one last shot at some answers while he can.
Not far away, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative magazine reporter who's got a knack for connecting the dots in ways that bring down titans, has just lost a nasty libel case. Henrik knows all that and more because he engaged a security firm to look into the journalist before asking him to take on Harriet's case. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), with her shaved head, nose rings, a dragon tattoo inked on her back and a genius streak when it comes to hacking computers, is the unlikely PI sorting through Mikael's dirty laundry.
With the players set, the filmmaker dives into Harriet's disappearance, leading us into a web of intrigue that the spider is still spinning.
For devotees of the book, be prepared: Oplev has done some major renovations on the story, changing characters, plot points and relationships to suit his needs. What he has kept, and what makes the movie work, is the essence of Lisbeth, Mikael and the mystery that will soon bring them together.
Without letting style overtake the substance, Oplev and cinematographer Eric Kress have nevertheless given a beautiful, somber tone to the proceedings, using the ice and snow of a Swedish winter to create a stark color palette as well as a cold, emotional tone.
The filmmaker has also done a neat trick in keeping all the mysteries straight, so that no one gets lost as Harriet's story unfolds and Mikael's and Lisbeth's take their own spot on the stage. All of this the filmmaker will get to before it's over, understanding that human behavior is really what's under the microscope here.
One of the difficulties inherent in turning "Dragon Tattoo" into a film is that Larsson, who died suddenly in 2004, leaving the as yet unpublished trilogy behind, tied so much of Mikael's sleuthing to sorting through old police reports, newspaper clippings, family photos and corporate archives, while Lisbeth's detective work is done digging inside computers. Not exactly the makings of an action thriller.
But Oplev keeps everyone, and everything, on the move, the tension unrelenting as new suspects keep popping up.
He is greatly helped by a number of finely wrought performances, with Rapace unforgettable as the dark and troubled Lisbeth, a turn that has already garnered the young actress a string of international awards. Meanwhile, Nyqvist brings just the right splash of irony and intensity to his wronged journalist, forever unable to resist a great story, and in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," that's exactly what we've got.