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Review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009)

There’s something not right about Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and it has nothing to do with her appearance. The piercings, the dirty, dilapidated clothing and the tattoos are anti-establishment, but they aren’t revolutionary. It’s Lisbeth’s eyes that say more. They flash hatred and mistrust and wariness. The “I’m a snarling disaffected loner” attitude isn’t fresh off the truck, either. Look beyond all that hostility, though, and her eyes give voice to a jagged rift between the world in her head and the world outside of it. After a few minutes, her expression makes sense. It’s confusion. She doesn’t understand people, and she doesn’t understand why they expect her to behave as they do. She’s a foreigner in a country where she doesn’t know the customs.

Thus, Lisbeth Salander may be the most compelling heroine ever created who might have an autism spectrum disorder. No one in Stieg Larsson’s novel or in Niels Arden Oplev’s film adaptation offers any medical explanation for the 24-year-old orphaned hacker’s odd, antisocial behavior. They tend to think of Lisbeth as disturbed, or emotionally traumatized (if they’re kind), or standoffish, or just plain difficult. It’s easier to write her off in such ways; besides that, she makes no effort to explain her motivations to anyone. She’s content to live in her own head, making her unknowable on a level most protagonists aren’t. Rapace’s no-holds-barred work ensures that Lisbeth is captivating rather than merely abrasive; at times, the actress achieves a level of intensity that is frightening. The rest of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” doesn’t quite measure up — there’s tension, violence, but subtlety’s in short supply — but has enough strong performances and twists to keep us intrigued.

Playing second fiddle to Rapace is Michael Nyqvist, whose journalist Mikael Blomkvist is staring down the barrel of a three-month prison sentence after losing a libel case against an industrialist. Nyqvist’s calm energy offers a nice balance to Rapace’s unchecked fierceness, although he has a touch of the same focus in him that makes his partner such a phenomenal hacker. Before he begins his sentence, Mikael takes another case: Industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) wants the reporter to investigate the decades-old disappearance of his niece Harriet, who worked as Mikael’s nanny during his childhood. Henrik hints at the skeleton’s in his family’s closet but is more blunt about what he thinks happened to Harriet: a family member murdered the teen-aged girl. The Vanger clan, Henrik, reports, is a nasty lot with secrets the members mean to keep at all costs. In his digging Mikael crosses paths with Lisbeth, hired by Henrik’s lawyer to investigate him. Rather, Lisbeth contacts him almost tauntingly, providing her answer to a clue Mikael can’t figure out. The two forge a ginger, fruitful partnership that succeeds because of their opposite personalities: Mikael understands how to read/manipulate people’s emotions, while Lisbeth does the same with data. The truths they unearth are shocking enough to suggest the Vanger family has more in common with the Manson family than anyone else.

Oplev elects to intermingle these dark revelations with Lisbeth’s struggle to ignore her past (shown in unsubtle flashbacks) and understand what Mikael expects of her. Brutality aside, it’s this struggle that proves to be what hooks us in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s got demons to spare, and her wrath toward men who hate women — the original Swedish title for Larsson’s book — knows no limits. One of the film’s most disturbing scenes is not her unthinkable abuse at the hands of her appointed guardian (a blood-freezing Peter Andersson), but her sadistically creative revenge. Rapace’s blistering scorn and towering rage are beyond disturbing. They’ll haunt you. So will other characters, like Martin Vanger, played masterfully with quiver-worthy menace by Peter Haber. Nyqvist is subdued, almost dull, but that’s a necessity. He’s not a burly action hero but an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story. He’s the tether keeping Oplev’s film from becoming a too-obvious celebration of grimness and death. Rapace has a different arc. She’s the embodiment of what John Milton meant when he wrote “I myself am hell.” Only her fury is every bit as sad as it is ruinous. 

Grade: A-