By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; WE26
It's the rare 2 1/2 -hour film that doesn't make you look at your watch once. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is such a film.
It isn't so much the pacing. Based on the first in a series of three popular mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, the Swedish thriller moves briskly but not so fast that you'd miss something if you took your eyes off the screen for a second. Rather, like a good book, the plot is so engrossing, the characters so rich and complex, the mood of gloom mixed with glimmers of hope so all-encompassing that the thought of its actually ending never occurs to you. That's true even as the fog gradually lifts and the movie approaches its sick, but deeply satisfying, conclusion.
At its simplest, "Tattoo" is the story of a 40-year-old missing-person investigation. Wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to do what the police couldn't: find out what happened to Vanger's favorite niece, Harriet (Ewa Froeling), who disappeared off the family's island compound in 1966 and is presumed to have been murdered. The prime suspects? Only all 30 members of the Vanger clan, who had gathered for an annual meeting. The motive? Vanger's inheritance, which, in the absence of a direct heir, would have gone to Harriet. The only way on or off the island, by the way, is a bridge, which, due to a traffic accident, had been closed on the day of the 16-year-old girl's disappearance.
In this sense, the setup is almost quaint. It's a classic "locked-room" mystery of the sort made famous by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and other masters of vintage detective fiction. The unraveling, however, could not be more modern.
No sooner does Mikael start to poke around, unearthing an old Bible of Harriet's containing a list of names and what look like phone numbers, than he is joined by Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the tattooed girl of the title. On probation for unnamed crimes, she's a multiply pierced computer hacker who works as a private investigator in Stockholm and has stumbled across Mikael's investigation only by accident, having previously investigated him. (Mikael himself is in a wee bit of a jam, having just been convicted of libel. The only reason he takes Vanger's assignment is that he has six months to kill before he begins serving his sentence.)
Soon Mikael and Lisbeth are partners, in romance as well as sleuthing. They make an unlikely pair, on both counts. He's pushing 50 and used to digging up dirt the old-school way, with a shovel if necessary. She's 24 and never without her most versatile tool, a laptop. Much of the film's most critical detective work involves Internet searches, photo-editing software, scanners and webcams. It's a high-tech twist to the shoe-leather approach to PI work, and for once it really works. So many movies today use computers as a modern deus ex machina, capable of solving crimes with a single keystroke. In this one, anyone with a laptop can believe it.
For fans of the thriller genre, it's also one heck of a lot of fun.
Not that "fun" is the key word here, by any means. As directed by Niels Arden Oplev, "Tattoo" is far more interested in shadows than in sunshine. One subplot concerns Lisbeth's parole office (Peter Andersson), a vicious creep who sexually assaults her. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of bad apples in the Vanger family tree, which has more than its share of Nazis.
But it's exactly that tonal chiaroscuro -- the stark contrast between the story's light and dark elements, good and evil, beauty and ugliness -- that makes "Tattoo" so compelling. Like Lisbeth's dragon tattoo, which takes up most of her back and a good part of her leg, the movie is both terribly scary and gorgeous.
*** Unrated. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, violence, grisly crime scene photos, nudity, sex, rape and smoking, all in large quantities. In Swedish with English subtitles. 152 minutes.