The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has the kind of morally murky, dread-laced atmosphere and outsized characters that suggest science fiction. There is something otherworldly in this crime story set in a depopulated, apocalyptically gray landscape where some fairly labyrinthine conspiracies are afoot.
In truth, the film originates with the cult novel by the Swedish magazine editor and journalist Stieg Larsson, who left behind an unpublished trilogy of books that became best-sellers after his death. But Larsson was also a science fiction fan and an investigative journalist specializing in hate groups. It's tempting to say he made contact with a dark, horrific side of life that few of us ever see, something that comes through in the sci-fi quality of his work.
When crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) meet, both have recently extricated themselves from nasty conspiracies. Blomkvist's exposure of the corrupt doings of a Swedish titan of industry has earned him a libel charge. And the 20-something Salander carries enough baggage for the both of them, having suffered untold traumas in her young life that led to jail time and constant monitoring by the state.
Blomkvist is hired by the scion of a wealthy Swedish family Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the disappearance of his 16-year-old niece Harriet 40 years ago. Blomkvist is soon joined by Salander, who has been cyber-stalking the journalist, on his quest. As Blomkvist's tireless investigation leads to clues in the case, director Niels Arden Oplev and cinematographer Eric Kress give the impression, in unrelentingly morose visuals and content, that the very soil is leaching some inescapable evil into the populace.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can at times suggest the gruesome, gratuitous content of some new crime show enterprise, say, CSI: Sweden. The film is a prolonged, often depressing catalogue of the aberrant, sadistic hatred many of the male characters have for women. For all of its disgust with the various crimes committed against women, an unsavory amount of screen time is devoted to visuals that depict those tortures. There is the mildly sickening sensation that as much as the film abhors the act, it lives in the same culture where those images compose a large part of what we strangely call "entertainment."
It's hard to deny the tightening dread that envelops this well-paced thriller. And the tender, cautiously developing romantic relationship between Blomkvist and Salander serves as contrast to the sexual sadism and evil they begin to uncover. The pair are the oddest, but also the most uniquely moving, of couples.
What The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, after all, is a story about power originating in the pen of an underdog journalist, whose career was defined by slaying racist and sexist Swedish monsters, often at great personal risk. The movie is about the grave, vast power exercised by institutions, ranging from corporations to the family. But it is also about the power imbalance between men and women in which too many men exert a vicious control over women.