Lisbeth Salander, the character at the center of Stieg Larsson's three novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) and their Swedish film versions, has ascended to a rare height in crime fiction: she's become the female Hannibal Lecter.
Granted, Lisbeth is essentially a heroine, not a villain. She doesn't chop up and devour her enemies; she only mutilates them while using her computer virtuosity to burglarize and expose their darkest secrets. But like Hannibal the Cannibal, Salander is a haunted, haunting genius, a cool freak with a gift for reading men's minds and a steely contempt for authority. Lisbeth and Lecter both survived traumatic childhoods and resolved to take revenge on much of mankind. Also, in one way or another, they're both hackers.
Next year Lisbeth gets the Hollywood treatment in David Fincher's remake of Dragon Tattoo, in which she'll be played by Rooney Mara (who impressed as Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend in Fincher's The Social Network). But for many viewers, the one and only Lisbeth is Noomi Rapace, 30, who caps her indelible characterization in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final and finest film in what's known as the Millennium trilogy, now opening in the U.S.
Like the books they are based on, the Millennium films are that rare phenomenon: a foreign-language series with the international appeal of Hollywood hits. Dragon Tattoo earned $104 million worldwide, Played with Fire, $64 million. In North America, they are the two biggest-grossing foreign films since 2007's La Vie en Rose. That movie won Marion Cotillard an Oscar for Best Actress; Rapace deserves no less.
What are the sources of Lisbeth's spiky charisma? In part it's a genius for accessorizing (the black lipstick, the nose ring, the dragon design covering most of her back); in part it's Rapace's severely seductive look. With her high cheekbones and sinewy, conditioned body, Rapace might be Kristen Stewart's half sister sired by Jackie Earle Haley. (In fact, her father was a Spanish flamenco singer, her mother the Swedish actress Nina Noren, who plays Lisbeth's mother Agneta in the first movie.) But Rapace earns most of her acclaim for the furious intelligence with which she invests Lisbeth. As she hunches over her Mac and elicits dreadful deeds from secret files, the electric heat of her concentration is almost visible. Both IT machine and feral animal she doesn't walk, she prowls Lisbeth is also, in Rapace's performance, fully vulnerable and totally human.
The Way the World Works
In the trilogy's one long narrative, Lisbeth is the ally and benign obsession of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), editor of the muckraking magazine Millennium with an agenda of exposing corruption in the Swedish government. Evil has a long tail, and the shady fellows on Mikael's to-find list include doddering Nazis and '60s Soviet spies. Honoring antique traditions of melodrama, the trilogy includes conspiracies of the powerful against the weak and revelations of long-lost fathers and siblings bent on infernal mischief.
As Hornet's Nest begins, Lisbeth is in a hospital, recuperating from wounds suffered in the previous episode, when she was shot up and buried alive. But she's not safe; bad guys still want to kill her. So she must go on the run, for three basic reasons: to stay alive, to solve the mystery and to confront the men who have scarred her. (The literal translation of the Swedish title of the first book is Men Who Hate Women.)
Lisbeth is the product of three men's serial abuse: by her father when she was a child, by her psychiatrist when she was a 13-year-old ward of the state and by her legal guardian when she was a young woman. Each of the films is the story of her revenge on each of these men. Here, as in virtually every thriller, the immediate malefactors are merely doing the bidding of a higher power. And Lisbeth's distrust of seemingly harmless old men, which most people see as paranoia, is merely a keen appraisal of the way this dark world works.
Hornet's Nest which, like Played with Fire, was aired as a Swedish-TV miniseries, then cut down to feature length is at heart a private-eye procedural. It's more indebted to Mikael's solid, stolid temperament than to Lisbeth's bouts of anger and inspiration. Scripted by Jonas Frykberg and Ulf Ryberg and directed by Daniel Alfredson, the film resolves the Millennium trilogy on a high note, infusing the grainy mock-doc style of the first two with brisker pacing, a chilling courtroom scene and the requisite face-off between Lisbeth and the most implacable of her would-be killers.
When American viewers connect with a foreign-language film, it's often for the same reason they like American movies: the alchemy of story and star. As Lisbeth, Rapace is simply impossible not to watch. Hollywood has been watching her too. She has a big role in 2011's Sherlock Holmes sequel and is reportedly being considered to star in a planned prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien as the heroine, or the creature? We don't know. She could convincingly inhabit either role, and that's a tribute to her keen screen intellect, her smoldering persona her Rapacity.