The "girl" of the title is actually a woman of 24, but as slim-hipped and flat-chested as a 12-year-old boy. The tattoo on her back is an impressive piece of body art, but not as noticeable — or as intimidating — as the multiple piercings on her ears and nose, the inky curtain of hair that obscures one eye, or the black lipstick she wears to business meetings.
Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander is one ingenious invention: part Nikita, part Miss Marple, part Pippi Longstocking.
She has a flexible sexuality, a mysterious background, a photographic memory and serious attitude problem. As fictional heroines go, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the computer-hacking sleuth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is one ingenious invention: part Nikita, part Miss Marple, part Pippi Longstocking.
Not surprisingly, Lisbeth is by far the most compelling creation of the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who completed a series of overcooked crime novels called the Millennium Trilogy shortly before he died of a heart attack in 2004. The same can be said about Rapace’s performance (which won her a Swedish Oscar) in the somewhat sluggish movie adaptation of the first book in the trio. A pocket-sized fury, Lisbeth sneers and stomps around Stockholm attracting equal amounts of curiosity and rage — from a gang of hoodlums at a subway station to a sadistic probation officer to whom Lisbeth must report for some nebulous past crimes.
The book and movie’s original Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women. While it may lack in subtlety, it certainly cuts to the chase. Larsson was a liberal investigative reporter with a particular interest in neo-Nazis and the extreme right wing. The focus of his crime novels, however, was the mistreatment of vulnerable women: girls raped by family members, Eastern European teenagers sold into sex slavery, the prostitutes and street-dwellers whose disappearances rarely make front page news. An urgent cause, most definitely, but Larsson’s fervent — albeit gripping — prose reads like proselytizing by a recent convert.
To wrangle the 500-plus-page book into a movie, director Niels Arden Oplev and writers Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel have streamlined the twisty-turny plot and cut characters, making for a decently spooky thriller.
Stockholm looks icy-sleek, while the countryside is as gloomy as a wicked witch’s forest. Like Larsson, Oplev obsessively scrubs away all the quaint national stereotypes. So much for disco hits, safe cars, trendy vodka and cradle-to-grave government care. If Oplev is to be believed, Sweden is grey-skied, chilly and populated by greedy capitalists and unrepentant psychopaths. It’s a little like discovering that Ikea furniture is actually named after Scandinavia’s most infamous serial killers.
Back to the mystery at hand: Lisbeth has a partner in crime-solving: Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a rumpled, veteran reporter about to serve time for libelling a powerful and probably corrupt businessman. (It’s the "probably" part that got Mikael into trouble — his sources turned on him after he published a scathing exposé.)
While he waits for his jail sentence to start, Mikael is hired by an elderly industrialist named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to look into a 40-year-old family mystery. During a holiday weekend, Henrik’s beloved teenaged niece Harriet went missing from the remote island compound where the family lives. She hasn’t been seen since. Henrik thinks she was murdered. Conveniently, the bridge that connects the island to the mainland was closed that day, confining the list of suspects to a grim-faced line-up of family members, a few of whom were Nazi sympathizers.
Before he approached Mikael, Henrik employed Lisbeth to run a background check on the journalist. She stalks Mikael as he begins the investigation, only to end up joining him on the case — and climbing into his bed.
Rapace and the amiable Nyqvist have believable opposites-attract chemistry, but the film’s sexual politics are weirdly conflicted. Lisbeth is the rare female character who is smarter and braver than her male equivalent. She’s meant to be an ass-kicking, feminist heroine, yet she’s also a traditional male fantasy object. After all, when a doughy, middle-aged journalist writes a novel about a doughy, middle-aged journalist who is seduced by a hot bisexual half his age, there’s probably a little wish fulfillment going on. Fair enough — Larsson wasn’t the first writer to engage in literary self-flattery. But in this broadside about "men who hate women," Mikael also happens to be the only non-creep in Sweden and Lisbeth is, like all the women in the film, a victim or a potential one.
In the movie’s most disturbing scene, Lisbeth is violently raped by her probation officer. This graphically shot violation is intended to make a bigger statement about patriarchy and institutional power. But there’s something in the way Oplev lingers over Lisbeth’s trussed-up body and zooms in on her screaming mouth that verges on titillation. (A friend called the film "Saw with a social conscience.") The payoff, if you can call it that, is an equally vicious act of revenge, but Rapace’s haunted eyes reveal that nothing will ever make up for her suffering.
It’s tricky to bring politics into a popcorn genre, particularly a subject as fraught and as easily exploitable as sexual violence. In the end, Oplev seems to want to both condemn misogynist brutality and estheticize it. Pardon my Swedish, but isn’t that called having your gravlax and eating it, too?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens on April 16.
Rachel Giese is a writer based in Toronto.