Anyone who thinks all European movies that reach our screens are art films will be disabused by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo . Based on the first in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of internationally best-selling mystery novels, this Swedish thriller isn’t much different, storywise, from one of those TV shows where quirky, angst-ridden detectives track down serial killers. Truth be told, it eventually boils down to a plot as hokey as something you’d see on “Criminal Minds.”
But director Niels Arden Oplev swaddles that sensationalistic kernel in a lavish package. Even at its ungainly length of two and a half hours, the movie is practically worth seeing just for the acting, the landscapes and the mood.
More importantly, David Fincher is already set to direct the U.S. adaptations of the Larsson books, and fans should see this film in case the execs force him to cast some starlet as Lisbeth Salander. Carey Mulligan’s name has been bandied about and, while the star of An Education is certainly talented, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace  has a harder edge that fits the part of Larsson’s hacker detective. As the tattooed girl of the title, she wears black leather, a double nose piercing, a perma-scowl and an attitude to match — and seems perfectly at home in them.
A young woman with a history in a psychiatric ward, Lisbeth lives in a harsh urban world where everyone seems to be leering at her, whether it’s the probation officer demanding sexual favors or the thugs who knock her down in the subway. Warning: The film features a few intense scenes of sexual assault. Just as intense, though, is the payback our heroine delivers.
If this doesn’t sound like a mystery, it’s not. It takes a full hour for Lisbeth’s story to converge with the actual whodunit, which concerns a crusading journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist ) who’s just been convicted of libeling a corporate overlord. Since he has some free time before serving his sentence, he accepts an invitation to come investigate a cold case on a cold island.
Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube ), who inhabits that island with other members of his wealthy clan, wants to know what happened to his beautiful teenage great-niece when she vanished back in 1966. So Mikael pores over old photos and tries to make sense of coded passages in the girl’s diary.
Eventually, through circumstances that feel highly contrived in this screen version, Lisbeth and her computer skills come to his aid. The angry young woman and the rumpled, resigned middle-aged guy make a surprisingly good team, and the dark secrets of the Vangers are no match for them.
It’s a tribute to Oplev’s skill that the film never drags. Not since the American version of The Ring have blue-tinged northern landscapes, isolated islands and black-and-white photos been invested with so much foreboding, and all that dread eventually comes to hair-raising — if predictable — fruition.
But do the thrills and chills have a purpose? The original title of both book and film translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that seems to be pretty much its message: Some guys really hate women. Also, rich people tend to be entitled asses who hate us all. While there’s some debate between Lisbeth and Mikael as to whether evildoers deserve due process, the story tends to bear out her view (kill the bastards) by casting most of its characters in black or white.
It’s a rare phenomenon on American screens: a paranoid, vigilante-glamorizing left-wing vision. I just wish its heroine had been given emotional shadings beyond suffering, rage and sullen endurance. Even badass hacker sleuths smile now and then.