Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

First things first: the new Swedish thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has been re-titled for American consumption, and done so in clumsy but understandable fashion. Based on a novel by Stieg Larsson entitled Män som hatar kvinnor — Men who Hate Women — the film’s U.S. distributor, Music Box Films, took a leaf from the book’s U.S. publisher, Vintage, and decided that the original title wasn’t going to help them sell tickets (or books).

While understandable from a marketing perspective, the new title — as well as an excellent, cleverly edited trailer (see below) that reveals just enough without showing too much — misrepresents the film as an action flick with a feminist angle. Though I doubt any truth in advertising laws have been breached, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is something much, much darker than James Bond in a frock — or even Modesty Blaise, for that matter.

Michael Nykqvist stars as Mikael Blomqvist, a muckraking journalist found guilty of libeling wealthy oligarch Wennerström (Stefan Sauk). While awaiting the beginning of his three-month jail term, Mikael is hired by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet.

The only problem: Harriet disappeared in 1966, and all that’s left of her are a few photographs showcasing her quizzical Mona Lisa smile. The extra twist: Harriet was Mikael’s babysitter the summer before she vanished.

Mikael teams up with Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a lissome goth girl with a talent for computer hacking and a penchant for body modifications. On the surface, Lisbeth is an unlikely private investigator — she’s only 24, and on probation for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the film — but what she lacks in experience she makes up for with relentless drive and dogged determination. Henrik suspects a family member is responsible for his niece’s disappearance, and as Lisbeth and Mikael disinter some of the unpleasant skeletons lurking in the Vanger family closet, his suspicions seem well founded. Or are they?

Even at 152 minutes in length, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo never seems overlong, and rarely drags. Revelations unfold at a comfortable pace that doesn’t set viewers’ heads spinning as they try to make sense of things only briefly glimpsed. A word of caution, however: true to its original title, the film is laden with sadism and violent sexual imagery. Though it’s important to stress that this is not a misogynistic film, it is — at least in part — a film about misogyny.

More Silence of the Lambs than The Silence, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sits somewhere between exploitative Swedish cinema shockers such as Exposed (1971) and They Call Her One-Eye (1974) and the hard-boiled detective fiction of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Though it falters a little during the final reel — secrets, once revealed, are never as exciting as when they were concealed — this is still an above-average thriller.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is currently playing at the Albany Twin and will be moving to the Piedmont in Oakland on April 9.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...