The Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor), which is more descriptive, although perhaps it gives too much away. The film, by Niels Arden Opley, is based on the novel by the late Steig Larsson, part of his posthumously published Millennium Trilogy, and it is indeed about men who hate women, and a few of the women they hate. It's also about that girl (a woman, really, and the diminution of her status in the English title is inconsistent with her fierce persona in the film), the one with the large, dark, snaky dragon tattoo on her slender, sinewy back. She is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and she herself has been the object of men's hatred, and violence (sexual and otherwise), for much of her life. It has made her vindictive (and rightly so), and a ferocious fighter.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also about another girl, one who has been missing for 40 years. Harriet was the scion of a wealthy industrialist family, the beloved niece of the aged Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), and she disappeared under mysterious circumstances when she was 16 years old. Vanger suspects that one of his hateful relatives killed her -- the family tree contains more than a few rotten branches, including three of Henrik's brothers, who were Nazis during World War II. Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to find out what happened to Harriet.
Blomkvist is an investigative journalist, recently convicted of libeling a Swedish tycoon. He has six months of freedom left before he starts a prison sentence (they're tough on libelers in Sweden). As it happens, Blomkvist once knew Harriet -- she babysat for him when he was a young lad, during a family vacation. And as it happens, Lisbeth has been investigating Blomkvist in her job for a security firm. She's a hacker, and something of a genius, and watches Blomkvist's investigation from afar by snooping in his computer. She becomes interested in the case of the missing girl.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is long (152 minutes) and pretty slow going for a while -- there are a lot of pieces to be put in place before the story begins to move forward. After a plodding and fitful start, it does start to move, and when it does, it moves in unexpected directions. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turns out to be about multiple crimes -- Blomkvist and Lisbeth uncover several murders that seem to be connected somehow to Harriet's disappearance. Unlike most films about murders, this one is more interested in the victims of violence than in the perpetrators. Indeed, typical for a murder mystery, it doesn't reveal the perpetrator until near the end, when the various pieces fall into place. What leads up to that, however, is atypical: a twisted, violent portrait of gruesomely dysfunctional families -- including Lisbeth's. The film wants to keep Lisbeth somewhat shrouded in mystery -- she doesn't care to reveal much about herself -- but it provides enough glimpses of her past (and present) to offer some clues about her rage, her damaged state, and the source of that massive chip on her shoulder. But despite the intriguing clues, and one satisfying scene in which she exacts some well-earned revenge on a tormenter, Lisbeth never develops very much as a character, and so the fascination is mostly in the mystery that surrounds her. Lisbeth is a commanding presence nonetheless -- it's impossible to take your eyes off of her. And she's far more compelling than Blomkvist, who is dogged, and nice (where Lisbeth is dogged but definitely not nice), and a bit of a dullard. Perhaps they'll flesh the pair out more fully in the two planned sequels.
What's interesting and unusual about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that the film goes to some pains to avoid fetishizing the gruesome murders, and neither does it make any attempt to humanize the killer. To discover the killer, Lisbeth and Blomkvist have to connect the dots and uncover the motive, but there's never any doubt that they are dealing with a monster, and an especially ugly one at that. It would seem, on the evidence, to be a hard thing for a movie about murder to avoid at some point showing sympathy for the devil. That sympathy seems to play into the public fascination with serial killers and their crimes, although why we find them so compelling (and why they make for such compelling entertainment) is an interesting psychological question, and one that we might be happier not fully understanding. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not terribly exciting or action-packed as thrillers go, but it dares to question the appeal of the murder mystery/serial killer thriller by telling a story that is frequently quite ugly and hard to watch, and which is ultimately compelling because it is about a woman who is ferociously committed to surviving. The film manages to keep its focus and its sympathies decidedly and unwaveringly with its fierce femme fatale, and not with the men who hate her.