Nordic Track

Niels Arden Oplev, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 152 minutes. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist).

AS A PERSON OF SWEDISH DESCENT and somewhat dark sensibilities, I was piqued by the idea of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Swedish adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, a posthumous publishing smash that spread the reputation of Nordic noir around the globe. As someone who rarely, if ever, reads contemporary mysteries, I had managed to avoid said publishing smash and hoped to get a taste of the Larsson phenomenon through the film, which has already won a smorgasbord of Swedish awards and was Europe’s top-grossing movie of 2009. I can’t say whether it is particularly faithful to the much-loved source novel, but the film is a serviceable potboiler, though given Sweden’s near-arctic winters, we might call it a potsimmerer—and simmer it does, for a good two and a half hours.

Much like the Scream franchise’s cannibalization of horror-movie history, Larsson laced the novels in the Millennium Trilogy with copious references to classic mystery fiction—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, and others—so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how derivative the film’s plot is. A disgraced investigative journalist is hired by an aging member of the wealthy, secretive Vanger clan—old-money Swedish industrialists who live on a remote island—to look into the decades-old disappearance of his niece, whom he suspects was murdered by one of their relatives. Enlisting the help of a young woman (the titular girl with tattoo), an antisocial cyberpunk hacker who has suffered the abuse of men all her life, the journalist moves into a cottage on the Vangers’ island and begins digging into the long-buried past.

The tableau of a prominent Scandinavian family being rent apart by suppressed secrets seems lifted from Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Dogme 95 gem The Celebration (1998) (the secrets are the usual suspects—incest, sex murders, Nazism); the multiply pierced, coldly violent hackstress is a dead ringer for Molly Millions from William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (and other Gibson stories); the beleaguered detective in the frozen rural North recalls a better version of Nordic noir, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia (1997); and there’s even some cryptic biblical hoo-ha that smacks of The Da Vinci Code. Larsson (and the screenwriters) weave these borrowed elements gracefully, but this still doesn’t account for the film’s rapturous reception in Europe.

Besides the stark, magic-hour beauty of the Vanger clan’s island and Michael Nyqvist’s understated, empathetic turn as the investigative journalist, the film is primarily distinguished by the taut, thoroughly credible performance of newcomer Noomi Rapace as the young, sexually abused female hacker. As a motorcycle-riding Valkyrie exacting harsh vengeance for every woman and girl who has been raped, molested, or harassed by men, she is the heart of the film, and Rapace owns the part. The novel and film’s original title was Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), and the story is really more about her than the twisted Faulknerian shame of the Vanger family. Note to Hollywood: If Neuromancer ever gets out of development hell, the producers should give Rapace a call.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens Friday, March 19.