A French critic in Cannes once remarked that European horror movies are different from Hollywood products in that “they are properly horrific.” And that certainly fits the bill for Swedish movie “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (released in Japan as “Millennium”) — a brave undertaking by director Niels Arden Oplev in scaling the peaks of the dauntingly scary. Not that there’s a whole lot of gore or fancy homicidal weaponry (the “Saw” series, anyone?); this is a film that fizzes the synapses and plays with the subconscious, resulting in a long-lasting haunting of your waking hours.

Protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is the editor of a Stockholm rag called “Millennium.” In the opening scenes, Blomkvist has just lost a libel suit, slapped on him by a financier whom the magazine exposed as a tax-evading scumbag. Consequently the earnest journalist is facing a term in prison but he’s unexpectedly let off the hook when Henrik Vanger, another prominent financier, comes looking for him. Vanger wants to hire Blomkvist to solve a “particular family problem” — the disappearance of his 16-year-old niece 40 years ago. Feeling like he’s had it with the media scene, Blomkvist agrees, and sets off to track a virtually fossilized scent.

Nyqvist is superb as the lumbering, cynical journalist and his presence on-screen is arresting if not captivating. But when punk-hacker babe Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) makes her bizarre and jolting entry, Blomkvist all but fades into the woodwork. Rapace uses every last millimeter of her 150 cm height to fill the screen with her spitfire persona and a sizzling, charming venom. She moves like a snake while resembling some akiba otaku’s (Japanese animation obsessive) S&M fantasy sprung to life — tattooed and pierced and leathered down to her glossy black fingernails. She is, however, fiercely unaccommodating and after a blackmail/rape incident that leaves her temporarily damaged, she retaliates by bludgeoning the guy with a golf club, and then tattooing the words “I Rape Women” onto his chest. Yeahy. Blomkvist meets Lisbeth in a somewhat gruesome encounter (she saves him from the clutches of a Stockholm serial killer) and understandably falls for her — though she’s typically glacial and stand-offish. Still, they share a rapport and decide to embark on the Vanger Family investigation together. Just when the clouds of mystery seem to be parting slightly, Vanger drops in to provide some unsavory info: that the niece was probably murdered, that other girls went missing in the city at about the same time, that someone in his family was likely to be the perpetrator.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Director Niels Arden Oplev
Run Time 152 minutes
Language Swedish
Opens Opens Jan. 16, 2010

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is based on one of the novels in a best-selling trilogy by Stieg Larsson — and Oplev is adamantly loyal (if a little unimaginatively so) to the original source, packing almost every incident into a hefty and dense 152 minutes. The way the plot evolves is mindful of Lars Von Triers — the tragedies, the hurt and the violence (overt and otherwise) never seems to let up, but is carefully rationed out in spoonfuls until one is overwhelmed by a sense of non well-being, as it were. In “Dragon Tattoo,” terror always lurks beneath the surface of a cold, glassy sheen; it’s like watching something through the surface of a coffee table (Swedish modern design, no doubt) and in unexpected moments, the veneer cracks to expose something slimey and brutal, fermented by four decades of lies and coverups.

Unflinching and unapologetic to the last frame, “Dragon Tattoo” never commits the fatal sin of many horror movies — slathering the screen with brutality, and then pretending everything is all right again. Things could never be the same for either Blomkvist or Lisbeth, but while he looks monstrously fatigued and irrevocably bruised, Lisbeth bears her scars with a sort of resigned stoicism. Rapace’s performance is extraordinary; her Lisbeth has no truck with solace or even safety and you get the impression that her mesmerizing snake’s stare could wilt evil itself.

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