The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates to "Men who hate women", a much more accurate description of the themes of the story. The film opens with a disconnected set of sequences introducing the three main characters. This is probably something that works better in text than it does on screen, though the plot quickly connects the dots and it's not long before you know all the players and what's at stake.
Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) is a talented muck-raking journalist (writing for Millennium) who has just lost a libel case in which his sources were found to be fraudulent. He's sentenced to 3 months in jail, but he has 6 months to get his affairs in order. The elderly Henrik Vanger has been getting strange packages in the mail every year, and he believes they're related to a 40 year old missing person case (where his niece disappeared). Finally, there's Lisbeth Salander, an ex-con who works as a security researcher and who has just found out that her current parole officer has had a stroke. His replacement is a sadist pig who uses his position to coerce Lisbeth into providing sexual favors. Vagner hires Blomkvist as a freelance investigator, and Salander eventually joins him in his research.
The way these apparently disconnected threads are pulled together is well done and the film contains a perfect balance between plot and character. Most thrillers lean too far in one direction, but Larsson and those who have adapted his work do an exceptional job here. I suspect lesser writers, when confronted with an engaging character like Lisbeth Salander, would be tempted to make the entire film a character study about her. On the other hand, there's also the temptation to put all the emphasis on the mystery of the girl who disappeared 40 years ago. Again, this film strikes the balance well. We get some excellent character establishment when we find out how Lisbeth handles her new parole officer - a sequence that is not necessary for the thriller plot, but which establishes the character of Lisbeth Salander quite well (there's a thematic parallel between Lisbeth's situation and the mystery though).
Speaking of Lisbeth, her character is probably the most interesting thing about this movie. She's played with an icy intensity by Noomi Rapace in a performance that should probably be up for an Oscar (though I'm doubting it will be). There is something of a paucity of strong female characters in typical Hollywood cinema these days, so this sort of character is a welcome change of pace. Lisbeth is a tortured soul (let's just say that her parole officer wasn't the first man who hated women that she has run accross), but she's battled through it all, though she understandably has some issues with men. For instance, her relationship with the journalist Mikael Blomkvist is an intriguing one and it manages to walk a rather tricky line. Blomkvist is an old school investigator, while Lisbeth relies on modern technology to do her research. This sort of oil-and-water mixture often plays out through bickering clichés, but not in this film. Once the two characters meet, it doesn't take long for their seemingly disparate styles to merge into a comfortable balance. There is a chemistry between the two and while their relationship grows into the sexual realm, it never feels forced or cloying (another commendable avoidance of clichés).
Clocking in at about two and a half hours, the film covers enough ground and paces itself well enough that it doesn't really feel that long. Though we all know there are at least two sequels, the film ends with closure (as opposed to some sort of cliffhanger). In the end, we're left with an exceptional thriller that balances character development and plot in a well-paced fashion. This has been a disappointing year for movies, so to say this film stands out from the pack doesn't really speak to how good it really is. I can almost guarantee it will be at or near the top of my top 10 at the end of the year.
For a sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire is quite good, though I don't think it approaches the first. I think the biggest issue I had was that it fell into the trap mentioned earlier about focusing too much on Lisbeth. Many of the other characters from the first film make an appearance here, and a passable mystery is solved, though it appears that all of them are working from different angles. For instance, Lisbeth and Blomkvist rarely interact throughout the film, which mutes one of the more interesting facets of the original film. The film ultimately manages to pull it off, but again, it's perhaps not quite as expertly crafted as its predecessor. Part of the issue, perhaps, is that I have not yet seen the third installment. While the second film ends with a bit of closure, there are still some loose threads which are apparently tied up in the third film. James Berardinelli draws an interesting comparison:
In a strange way, the structure of The Millennium Trilogy reminds me of the first Star Wars trio. The first movie establishes the characters while providing a largely self-contained story with a few "hooks" that can be used to further the narrative in additional installments. The second and third movies are inextricably wedded and function best when seen as parts of a whole. Installment #2 is darker than its predecessor and ends in a cliffhanger. Admittedly, it might sound like a stretch to compare a Gen-X touchstone space opera to a Swedish mystery thriller series, but I'm referring only to the rhythms of the stories, not the content.Berardinelli also seems to be a little more forgiving of the lack of interaction in this second film and sees it as an equal to the first (if not better). Perhaps I'll feel that way after seeing the third film, but as of right now, I think the first is noticeably better than the second.
In any case, I'm very much looking forward to the forthcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Apparently Larsson was mostly done with a fourth novel and had outlines and story treatments for several others, so there may be even further installments (though with the untimely death of Larsson, one wonders whether proceeding further would be wise).