Readers of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster thriller, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," already know what truly dark and depraved business is in store for the Swedish author's improbable pair of sleuths: intrepid investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk cyber-hacker Lisbeth Salander. (Nick and Nora Charles, they are not.)
Those who have yet to read the international mega-seller - and those who have - can take heart not only that the film adaptation is exceptionally faithful to the late Larsson's book, but also that the deftly compressed mystery boasts an actress who is the walking, talking embodiment of the strange creature that is Lisbeth. Noomi Rapace makes the kind of star debut that signals a significant career, and her transformation into the young, angry Ms. Salander - a victim of sexual abuse and institutional cruelty whose extraordinary resilience and IQ are hidden in a slight, sinewy frame covered in body piercings and tattoos - is remarkable.
Rapace, like the troubled woman she plays, is scary.
Directed by Denmark's Niels Arden Oplev, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a giant at the European box office in 2009, finds the middle-aged, serious-minded reporter and magazine editor Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in a deep predicament. Convicted of slander for an investigative piece gone awry, the disgraced journo is hired by an elderly tycoon to look into the disappearance, and presumed murder, of the latter's niece 40 years earlier.
It's a cold case, and a peculiar one, full of ugly family conflict, but Blomkvist takes it on: The money is good, and it's an excuse to get out of Stockholm and away from media scrutiny before he has to go serve his prison sentence.
Salander, who works for a private security firm - daunting computer chops and intellectual curiosity trump her abrasive personality and complete lack of social skills - finds herself first investigating Blomkvist, and then allied with him.
She has her own problems, too, most notably a new court-appointed guardian who is a sexual deviant, a brutal and imperious creep. The rape and torture scenes, a vivid (and necessary) component of Larsson's book, are rendered with fearless detail in the film. They are neither exploitative nor gratuitous, but they are certainly not easy to watch.
There's a gloomy Scandinavian current running beneath the surface of the mystery here: disturbing stuff about abuse and misogyny, Nazis and anti-Semitism, the rot at the heart of the civilized, socialist state. Oplev's direction is crisp and observant, and while Rapace's performance is the extraordinary one, Nyqvist's is solid and steady, and Sven-Bertil Taube, as the moneyed patriarch Henrik Vanger, is compelling.
Like Thomas Harris' novels (and subsequent screen adaptations) "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is rife with nightmarishly violent and horrific behavior. It's intense, graphic, frightening.
And, yes, exhilarating.