The biggest compliment you can pay the much-anticipated film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that you can't imagine Stieg Larsson's corker of a story ever having existed in book form.
Director Niels Arden Oplev has taken a dense mystery overstuffed with suspects and miscreants and brought it to resplendent cinematic life. So much critical information is conveyed via images -- a crucial series of photographs taken at a parade, for example, or the unusually stern gazes of people posing for a family portrait -- that whatever details and subplots the novel loses on the way to the screen are made up by the film's atmosphere of simmering, brooding evil.
Like David Fincher's Zodiac, this is a hypnotically visual movie about research into an unsolved crime. The disgraced journalist Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) and the moody computer hacker Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) team up to investigate the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a teenager who vanished in 1966 while visiting the island estate of her immensely wealthy and powerful family.
Harriet's disappearance continues to haunt her uncle (Sven-Bertil Taube), who believes her killer is still at large -- and possibly may have been related to her. He hires Mikael, for whom Harriet used to babysit, to see if he can find any new cracks in the ice-cold case.
Mikael's detective work eventually brings him into contact with Lisbeth, she of the eponymous tattoo, a vulnerable-yet-defiant beauty and one of the most striking and original movie heroines in recent memory. Played by Rapace in a star-making performance, Lisbeth is unlike any troubled bad girl you've encountered: A distinct vulnerability and emotional damage lurk beneath her tough exterior, and the combination makes her utterly fascinating, whether she's tapping away at a computer keyboard or taking sweet, horrible revenge against a perverted probation officer.
Although the movie is the first in a trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is self-contained, and viewers who pay close attention to its intricate plot (no bathroom breaks allowed) will be rewarded. But Rapace's haunting, enigmatic Lisbeth is the element that leaves you eager for the next two installments. She's fantastic, and so is the movie.The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (***1/2 out of ****) opens today at South Beach, Intracoastal and Sunset Place in Miami; Sunrise in Fort Lauderdale; and Shadowood, Delray, Mizner Park and Gardens in Palm Beach. The film is unrated but contains some disturbing violence, including a graphic depiction of rape.