Adapting a best-seller for the screen is normally a safe bet for a studio, but a decidedly risky proposition for a director. While there is a considerable built-in audience that is virtually guaranteed to buy a ticket, many of those viewers are predisposed to criticize the film because of its inevitable differences from the book. While the most dedicated fans of Stieg Larsson's international best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will find enough discrepancies in Niels Arden Oplev's film to help them achieve their nitpicking fix, it is difficult to imagine anyone exiting the theater feeling disappointed by this riveting thriller.
Regardless of the story, readers know that the film will succeed or fail on the basis of its depiction of the book's most memorable character, the punk-rock Sherlock Lisbeth Salander, an investigator extraordinaire who prefers black leather, a spiked collar, and Doc Martens to her predecessor's cape coat, deerstalker hat, and loafers. Lisbeth is utterly embodied by Swedish starlet Noomi Rapace, who did a "De Niro" to prepare for the role by getting several real piercings, studying kickboxing and motorcycle riding, and losing a dangerous amount of weight to shrink into Lisbeth's skinny frame. Beneath the stoic composure required by Salander's extreme social estrangement, Rapace masterfully conveys her character's complex mixture of violence and vulnerability, often using only expression, gesture, and tone. Rapace's presence as Lisbeth is more of a manifestation than a performance, an astonishing achievement that is even more impressive considering the overwhelming global expectations for the role.
Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (To Verdener) does an equally impressive disappearing act, as he resists the urge to immerse Larsson's pitch-dark plot with superfluous violence and cinematic flash. The film features one searing scene of a vicious assault against Salander that is absolutely harrowing and hard to watch, but Oplev (and Larsson) later reverse the positions of power to produce one of the most memorable scenes of redemptive violence in film history. These two scenes are so skillfully balanced against one another that their resonance of male aggression and its repercussions carries through the rest of the film, allowing Oplev to forego the necessity for further graphic depictions. After establishing this tone of grim urgency, the director uses the tools of his trade to meticulously heighten the tension and embellish the literary plot with injections of pure cinema, such as when Mikael Blomkvist (played with sedate determination by Michael Nyqvist) uses new technology to conjure a ghost from a series of old photographs. As the protagonists dig deeper into the central mystery, the scope and gravity of the crime accumulates and the pressure builds to a striking climax that flirts with Hollywood convention just long enough to enhance the shock and delight of its eventual vicissitude.
Those who have never read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be mesmerized by the addictive mystery at its center, involving Nazis, biblical murders, and a family that forever redefines dysfunction. Those who already know the solution to the mystery can still relish Noomi Rapace's impeccable rendition of Lisbeth Salander while they scrutinize the screen for disparities that might drag it down below the novel on the imaginary scale of universal artistic quality. But this outstanding film is all that could be hoped for from such a prominent adaptation, which means that there will be plenty of room beneath it on that artistic scale for the inevitable Hollywood remake.