This English-language adaptation of the Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson follows a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), as he investigates the disappearance of a wealthy patriarch's niece from 40 years ago. He is aided by the pierced, tattooed, punk computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). As they work together in the investigation, Blomkvist and Salander uncover immense corruption beyond anything they have ever imagined.
Mikael Blomkvist is a disgraced journalist who is asked by a wealthy industrialist to write a biography on his family. But what he really wants Blomkvist to do is to find out what happened to his niece, who went missing 40 years ago. Blomkvist, at first, is not interested, till the man offers to help him clear his name. Blomkvist, begins by talking to the man's relatives who were there when the girl went missing. And some of them are not forth coming. Blomkvist eventually believes that her disappearance might have something to do with some serial killings that took place 20 years before she disappeared. So he asks for a research assistant. So the industrialist's man suggests Lisbeth Salander, a talented hacker who does background checks for them and who even did one on Blomkvist. When he sees her report, he's impressed and asks her to work with him and she does. She's anti-social but is extremely efficient.
After being successfully sued for libel by a wealthy industrialist, investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist leaves his magazine Millennium and accepts an offer from Henrik Vanger to write the Vanger family history. An old industrial family, the Vangers have their share of skeletons in their closet. What Henrik is most interested in learning however is what happened to his niece, Harriet Vanger, who he is certain was murdered by a member of his family in the summer of 1966. Mikael takes on the task and moves into a small cottage on the Vanger estate. He begins to decipher some of the clues Harriet has left behind and decides to get an assistant, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, the woman who did the very thorough background check on him for Vanger. Together, they learn of some of the Vangers deep, violent secrets.
Stockholm-based Mikael Blomkvist, co-owner and co-editor of Millennium magazine, has just lost a high profile libel case resulting from an article he wrote on businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. This loss has the potential to ruin Mikael professionally. As such, he leaves the magazine in the hands of the other co-owner/co-editor, Erika Berger, with who he is openly having an affair, which ruined his marriage. Even in Erika's hands, the magazine is also suffering because of the scandal and resulting loss of ad revenue. Because of Mikael's investigative abilities as a journalist, he receives an offer by wealthy and aged Henrik Vanger: solve the forty year old cold case of his missing and presumed dead grandniece, Harriet Vanger, who was only sixteen at the time of her disappearance. Despite Henrik's generous financial compensation, which could also save the magazine, Mikael is unconvinced to do the work until Henrik adds one additional piece of compensation that money can't buy. Mikael will largely do the work on Hedeby Island just off of Hedestad in northern Sweden, the island where Harriet was last seen, and where most of the dysfunctional extended Vanger family still lives, they who are among the suspects. To the family, Mikael is solely writing a chronicle of the Vanger family, without them knowing that his primary task is to find Harriet's killer. As Mikael proceeds with his investigation, he asks for a research assistant. Who Henrik's lawyer recommends is a young woman named Lisbeth Salanger, who conducted the background check on Mikael which Henrik ordered in preparation to hire him for this job. Mikael agrees with the choice when he sees that check she did of him, he knowing that she could only have found out key pieces of information through one means, which could help in this matter. Lisbeth is a brilliant investigator, but troubled in her personal life, which includes being under state guardianship due to incidents that happened while she was growing up. Despite what he knows of Lisbeth through her research of him, and despite her alternative appearance, Mikael begins to trust her, and she him - the first person she trusts in establishment in a long time - as they tie Harriet's disappearance to a series of what look to be murders of young women leading up to the disappearance. Through the case, Lisbeth begins to see a different life for herself, while Mikael has the larger goal of regaining his good name by knowing that Wennerström is much what he wrote.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for forty years by Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker.
- Note: this is an English-language adaptation of the Swedish novel trilogy by Stieg Larsson. But with the same setting in Stockholm, Sweden.
On his birthday, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), retired CEO of Vanger Industries, receives a pressed flower in the mail from an anonymous sender and phones retired inspector Gustaf Morell (Donald Sumpter).
Co-owner of the magazine Millennium, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is swarmed by reporters as he leaves a courthouse, having lost a libel suit leveled against him by corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). His reputation destroyed and his life savings gone, Blomkvist returns to the office and informs his co-owner Erika Berger (Robin Wright), who is also his lover, that he is resigning.
Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), the attorney of Henrik Vanger, meets with Dragan Armansky (Goran Visnjic) at the headquarters of Milton Security, having requested a background check on Blomkvist. Armansky has arranged for Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a girl in her twenties with multiple tattoos and facial piercings who is his best researcher and computer hacker, to come in and personally report her findings on Blomkvist.
On Christmas Day, Blomkvist receives a phone call from Frode summoning him to the Vanger estate on Hedeby Island in Hedestad for a face-to-face meeting with Henrik. Upon his arrival, Henrik explains that he is interested in hiring Blomkvist to investigate the murder of his niece Harriet Vanger, who disappeared from the island over 40 years ago. Before she vanished, Harriet would give Henrik a pressed flower for his birthday every year, a tradition that he believes has been continued by the person responsible for her disappearance. Convinced that someone in the family murdered Harriet, Henrik will allow Blomkvist to conduct his investigation out of a cottage on the island, under the guise of writing a memoir about Henrik and his life. Blomkvist is reluctant to accept, until Henrik offers him incriminating evidence that would validate his claims against Wennerstrom.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth pays a visit to the home of her legal guardian Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson) and discovers that he has had a stroke. Ruled legally incompetent as a child, Lisbeth is a ward of the state and she is placed under the guardianship of lawyer Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who takes full control of her finances.
When her laptop computer is damaged during an attempted mugging at a local metro station in which she savagely beats her would-be attacker, Lisbeth goes to the apartment of Bjurman to get funds for a replacement, who forces her to perform sex acts on him in exchange for access to her money. One night, when she requests money for food, he has Lisbeth come to his apartment, where he handcuffs her to his bed and proceeds to rape and sodomize her, unaware that she has secretly recorded the crime using a hidden camera on her backpack.
Taking up residence in the cottage, Blomkvist begins his investigation of Harriet, taking particular interest in a notebook of Harriet's that has a list of five names and a corresponding five-digit number for each of them. Speaking with Morell, the chief investigator who was called in when Harriet first disappeared, Blomkvist is informed that they are simply random local phone numbers. But a surprise visit from his daughter yields unexpected results, and he discovers that the names all belong to victims of unsolved murder cases and the numbers refer to specific bible verses in the Book of Leviticus that each depicts the different methods used in each killing.
Lisbeth takes revenge on Bjurman. She visits him at his apartment again, asking him for money for rent. When he lets her in, she tasers him. He wakes up to find himself with his mouth taped shut, tied spread-eagled on the floor, and naked in his own bedroom. Lisbeth sodomizes him with an large steel bar and tells him how she recorded the previous night's rape. She tells him she intends to release it all over the Internet if he doesn't allow her to control her own finances and apply to have her status of legal incompetence rescinded. Before she leaves, she tattoos I AM A RAPIST PIG on his chest and informs him that she will kill him if he ever brings another woman to his apartment, involuntarily or voluntarily.
Just as Blomkvist begins to suspect that he is on the trail of a serial killer, Henrik falls ill and Blomkvist must now answer to Frode and Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård), brother of Harriet and current CEO of Vanger Industries who also lives on the island. Blomkvist requests a research assistant and Frode recommends Lisbeth, revealing that he paid for a background check on Blomkvist, which he demands to see. After reviewing the file, Blomkvist realizes that Lisbeth hacked into his computer and pressures Dragan Armansky into giving him her address for a face-to-face meeting.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth goes to a local nightclub for a drink when she gets picked up by an equally outgoing woman named Miranda Wu, whom the flattered Lisbeth responds to her advances and takes LSD with her before they both return to Lisbeth's apartment where they spend the night together.
The next morning, Blomkvist shows up on the doorstep of Lisbeth's apartment where he asks for her help with his case. Lisbeth is initially suspicious of him, but she relents when he reveals that he needs her assistance in finding a serial killer of women. She agrees.
While he is waiting for Lisbeth to come to the cottage, Blomkvist takes a stroll across the island and is shot at by an unseen gunman, sending him fleeing back to the cottage where he finds that Lisbeth has arrived and even begun to set up surveillance cameras. After treating his head wound, Lisbeth strips naked and the two of them have sex, despite the initial reluctance of Blomkvist.
While Lisbeth is off collecting information about each of the murders, Blomkvist discovers photos from a parade that Harriet attended on the day she disappeared, which imply that she saw something that frightened her. Visiting a woman who was also present at the parade, Blomkvist finds that she has an obscured picture of a mysterious man standing across the street from Harriet, whom he believes to be the killer. Once Lisbeth arrives on the island and presents her information from each murder, Blomkvist asks Frode and Martin for access to their corporate archives, in hopes of finding a connection between the company and the different locations of each killing.
Scouring the archives dating back to the 1940s, Lisbeth discovers that Gottfried Vanger, the late nephew of Henrik, was in the same town as each of the women during the time they were murdered, with the exception of one victim who was killed two years after Gottfried downed in the lake outside his home on the island.
Back on the island, Blomkvist pays a visit to Henrik's brother Harald Vanger (Per Myrberg), a recluse who is shunned by the rest of the family for being a Nazi, and asks to see some pictures he took from the days after Harriet first disappeared. One photo in particular catches his attention, because the person in the photo is wearing the same school uniform as the mysterious man from the parade. Blomkvist asks Harald to identify this man and he says that it is Martin when he was only a teenager.
Back at the archives, Lisbeth begins to notice that Martin is visible in the background of news clippings of Gottfried visiting each of the towns on business, having accompanied his father on his travels. She then realizes that the final victim, killed two years after the death of Gottfried, studied at the same school as Martin, leading her to believe that he took after his father.
Unable to reach Lisbeth due to poor cell phone reception, Blomkvist decides to break into Martin's house alone and look for clues, but Martin sees him. Martin invites Blomkvist in for a drink, and then leads Blomkvist at gunpoint to a secret basement where Martin gases him, knocking him unconscious. Marin chains Blomkvist and harnesses him to an overhead rail system. Martin casually reveals to Blomkvist that he used the basement to murder all his victims, and that he even had a girl captive in the basement when he met with Blomkvist and Frode a couple of days prior.
Lisbeth returns to the cottage she has been sharing with Blomkvist during their research and looks through his research. She concludes Martin may be at the center of the girls' disappearance. She checks the cottage surveillance cameras and sees Martin looking for Blomkvist.
In the basement, when Blomkvist suggests that Martin killed Harriet, Martin becomes furious and admits that he has no idea what happened to Harriet. He places a plastic bag over Blomkvist's head and prepares to kill Blomkvist, but hesitates when he is about to remove Blomkvist's pants. Lisbeth appears behind him and hits Martin across the face with a golf club. Martin falls to the floor and then escapes. Lisbeth grabs Martin's pistol and tries to find him in the house, when he flees in his car. Lisbeth chases him on her motorcycle, and when he attempts to run her off the road, he loses control of his car and crashes. Lisbeth walks towards the car, pistol in hand, but the car explodes and burns, killing Martin.
With Martin dead, Blomkvist pays a visit to Anita Vanger (Joely Richardson) in London, who was the best friend of Harriet, but she is surprisingly unaffected by the news. Confronting her further, Blomkvist discovers that she is, in fact, Harriet. When she was a teenager, her father Gottfried would repeatedly rape her and eventually Martin began to do so as well. After fighting back one night and drowning her father in the lake, Harriet thought the nightmare was over, until she saw Martin at the parade, watching her intently from across the street after leaving school. Determined to get out, Harriet turned to Anita for help, who smuggled her off the island and whose identity Harriet assumed once she died several years later. Harriet has also been the one sending Henrik the flowers, intending for them to be a sign to him that she is living well.
After Harriet returns to Sweden and back to the island for a tearful reunion with Henrik, Blomkvist discovers that the evidence Henrik has against Wennerstrom is useless, having passed the statute of limitations. But Lisbeth reveals that she has hacked into his computer and offers Blomkvist the evidence he needs, which he uses to convince Erika Berger to publish another article exposing Wennerstrom. When Wennerstrom goes on the run once the allegations and evidence become public, Lisbeth travels Europe in disguise and converts all of his funds into bonds which she takes for herself, making it appear as if he has emptied his accounts and taken it all for himself. His criminal associates are none too pleased and, in a matter of days, news breaks that Wennerstrom has been found dead.
Having done all of this for Blomkvist, Lisbeth intends to declare her love for him by presenting him with a motorcycle jacket she saw in an old photograph on his computer. But, when she arrives at this apartment, Lisbeth sees him happily walking off with Erika, prompting her to throw his gift into a dumpster and then drive off on her motorcycle.