"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a compelling thriller to begin with, but it adds the rare quality of having a heroine more fascinating than the story. She's a 24-year-old goth girl named Lisbeth Salander, with body piercings and tattoos: thin, small, fierce, damaged, a genius computer hacker. She smokes to quiet her racing heart.
Lisbeth is as compelling as any movie character in recent memory. Played by Noomi Rapace with an unwavering intensity, she finds her own emotional needs nurtured by the nature of the case she investigates, the disappearance of a young girl 40 years earlier. As this case is revealed as part of a long-hidden pattern of bizarre violence against women, memories of her own abused past return with a vengeance.
The notion of a murder with a limited list of suspects was conventional even before Agatha Christie. Niels Arden Oplev's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" pays it lip service, with Mikael covering a wall with photos of the suspects. But this is a new age, and in addition to his search of newspaper and legal archives, he uses the Internet. That's how he comes across Lisbeth, who has been investigating him. She's described as Sweden's best hacker, a claim we have no reason to doubt, and the intensity of her focus, contrasted to her walled-off emotional life, suggests Asperger's.
They team up on the case, and might become lovers if not for Mikael's diffidence and her secretive hostility. They become efficient partners. Scenes involving newspaper photographs and Internet searches create sequences like a "Blow-Up" for the digital age. The film is unique in my memory for displaying screen shots of an actual computer operating system, Mac OS X, and familiar programs like e-mail and iPhoto. Ever notice how most movie computers work like magic?
This is not a deep psychological study. But it's a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.