June 23 2010 12:00 AM

Spellbinding shocker is vicious, frightening and even touching


Every year on his birthday, Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger receives a package containing framed flowers. The gifts come from all over the world, but Vanger isn’t delighted: He suspects they are being sent by the person who did away with his beloved niece, Harriet, 40 years ago.

Harriet used to give him the same present before she vanished. The 82-year-old Vanger knows he’s in his final days, and, before he dies, he wants to find out exactly what happened to Harriet. That’s the mission that brings together journalist Mikael Blomkvist and rough-around-the-edges researcher Lisbeth Salander in the spellbinding Swedish chiller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," based on Stieg Larsson’s runaway international bestseller.

While Hollywood is already licking its chops to adapt "Dragon" — David Fincher is set to direct, and names like Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt. Kristen Stewart and Ellen Page are being thrown around for the roles of Blomkvist and Salander — it might be very difficult to top director Niels Arden Oplev’s film, which ties your nerves in knots before unexpectedly touching your heart.

Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) are both wounded souls, although they handle their hurt differently. She sports a splashy tattoo of a dragon’s head that covers most of her back, and there are hints that she’s had a violent past; he’s about to go to jail after losing a slander case, but he faces his sentence with almost complete detachment, as if he’s watching his life from a comfortable distance instead of actually experiencing it.

Lisbeth suffers horrific humiliation at the hands of a sadistic “guardian” (Peter Andersson) — the scenes in which he viciously and mercilessly manipulates her into cooperating with his sick schemes are terrifying — while Mikael faces the scorn of his fellow reporters and the loss of his reputation; for both of them, solving this case is much more than a matter of merely bringing peace to an old man.

By learning the truth about what happened to Harriet, they hope to make sense of their own shattered lives.

Screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel masterfully manage to weave together Lisbeth and Mikael’s personal crises with a fascinating, sprawling mystery that incorporates power struggles, religious fanaticism, politics, serial killings and tell-tale clues concealed inside seemingly innocuous snapshots. If that was all “Dragon” had to offer, it would be merely a top-flight shocker. But the performances of Nyqvist and Rapace give the movie startling emotional resonance.

Nyqvist, who made a strong impression as the hot-tempered husband in director Lukas Moodysson’s “Together” 10 years ago, creates a quietly compelling character whose determination and passion are hidden inside a cool exterior.

Rapace, in contrast, always seems to be on the edge of eruption: Fury and frustration bubble up in Lisbeth’s eyes, which are encircled in dark, heavy Goth makeup. She wears a spiked collar and a black leather jacket to keep the world at arm’s length, but the costume can’t completely bury the sensitivity and vulnerability she’s bent on hiding.

One of the many marvelous facets of Rapace’s performance is her easy ability to convey Lisbeth’s keen intelligence and analytical ability. Even when Lisbeth seems to be withdrawn and sullen, she never shuts down: This world-class computer hacker and formidable street fighter is ever aware of her surroundings and is constantly calculating her next move.

“Dragon” provides such an electrifying ride that you can forgive its slightly shaky climax, which involves a villain taking time out from his dirty work to explain his sordid scheme in detail. It’s the standard James Bond finale: Before the bad guy can kill you, he has to talk you to death.

That’s a minor misstep in an otherwise enthralling, splendidly told story that leaves the door open for the further Mikael/ Lisbeth adventures.

Good news: The film adaptation of “The Girl Who Played With Fire” opens in select cities in July, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” should reach American audiences before the end of the year.

Even better news: Rapace and Nyqvist are reprising their roles in the sequels.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

by East Lansing Film Society Rated R; in Swedish with English subtitles
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, through Friday, June 25 East Lansing
Hannah Community Center 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing $7 for adults, $5
for seniors and $3 for students. www.elff.com