If ever an atmosphere could be described as dank, fetid yet strangely luxurious, it’s the chill seeping through every corrosively beautiful frame of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” As classy a film as could be made from Stieg Larsson’s sordid page-turner, David Fincher’s much-anticipated return to serial-killer territory is a fastidiously grim pulp entertainment that plays like a first-class train ride through progressively bleaker circles of hell. If the brooding intelligence and technical mastery on display at times feel disproportionate to the material, Rooney Mara’s riveting take on Lisbeth Salander amply validates what will likely be Fincher’s biggest success to date.
The global popularity of Larsson’s posthumously published “Millennium” trilogy should help the Sony release overcome a number of commercial hurdles, including a no-bull R rating, scenes of implied sexual assault, and a pacey but unhurried 158-minute running time. That this English-lingo adaptation is arriving not long after a widely seen Swedish version (which grossed $104 million worldwide and an impressive $10 million in the U.S. last year) could hinder its international prospects to some degree, but all in all, the desire to see what Hollywood has wrought from Larsson’s literary juggernaut should entice franchise addicts, casual fans and mildly curious holdouts.
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What they’re in for is a considerably slicker and more sophisticated piece of film craft than the Swedish production or either of its Nordic TV sequels. The film telegraphs its exceptional production values and acrid tone with one of Fincher’s typically arresting credits sequences: a rapid-fire frenzy of images variously evoking sex, violence, birth, technology and immolation, set to a furious cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” featuring Karen O. It’s presumably a howl of rage from the ravaged psyche of Lisbeth Salander (Mara), the dragon-tattooed Goth girl whose black mohawk, bondage gear and don’t-mess-with-me attitude conceal a troubled history as well as one of Sweden’s great investigative minds.
Hewing more faithfully to the novel than its predecessor did, Steven Zaillian’s smartly pruned screenplay divides its time between Salander, a supremely gifted hacker and professional snoop, and the most recent subject of one of her expert background checks, Stockholm-based magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). Publicly disgraced after losing a high-profile libel case rigged by a corrupt mogul (Ulf Friberg), Blomkvist takes a powder and relocates on a whim to the remote Hedeby Island; there, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), aging patriarch of the wealthy, notoriously fractious Vanger family, has assigned him to find out what happened to Henrik’s niece Harriet, who, as depicted in gorgeously hued flashbacks, mysteriously disappeared from the island more than 40 years ago.
Blomkvist eventually unmasks not just a killer but a highly disturbing record of generational sin etched in the Vanger dynasty’s DNA and, by extension, the fabric of any Western capitalist society. Without excessively underlining the subtext, the film fully retains Larsson’s thinly veiled indictment of corporate skulduggery, anti-Semitism, child abuse and, above all, unspeakably sadistic crimes against women (not for nothing was the novel published in Sweden under the title “Men Who Hate Women”). Fittingly, it’s Salander who serves as not only a victim of such violence, but an avenging dark angel.
To that end, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall crosscut frequently between Blomkvist’s investigation and a disturbing parallel narrative in which Salander, a ward of the state, must deal with a predatory legal advocate (Yorick van Wageningen). As with the Swedish pic, the scenes in which this sadist abuses his authority will prove the most difficult to watch, although here the degradation is more implied than seen, shot dimly and from a well-judged distance, with no hint of leering or exploitation beyond the calculated satisfaction of watching Salander turn the tables.
Blomkvist eventually hires Salander as a research assistant, initiating a collaboration that sets off professional and romantic sparks and brings the investigation to a boil. As the two use the latest technology to resurrect old files, photos and clippings, their MacBooks commanding nearly as much screentime as their faces, Fincher charts their progress with unerring focus and agility; instinctively, one detects reverberations of the helmer’s past work, notably the razor-sharp techno-savvy of “The Social Network” and the procedural rigor of “Zodiac.” Yet where the obsessive quest for knowledge in that 2007 film was predicated on the unknowability of the truth, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is finally let down by a yarn that contents itself with easy solutions and few lingering mysteries. For all the fetishistic attention Fincher and his crew lavish on every gruesome forensic detail, they’re unable to transmute Larsson’s rudimentary mystery plotting into something more than pop-lit fare.
What remains, then, is the hypnotic presence of Mara, who fearlessly steps into a role made iconic by Swedish thesp Noomi Rapace and proves more than equal to the challenge. Whereas Rapace emphasized the character’s pluck and rage, the more petite, vulnerable-looking Mara presents Salander as an emptied-out enigma: Pierced to the nines, her eyebrows dyed a pale skin tone so as to drain any readable emotion from her face, she frequently averts her gaze downward from whomever she may be addressing. It’s a gesture at once defensive and defiant, bespeaking years of endured abuse and alienation, yet despite her blank affect, the actress charges every moment with tension and feeling.
Though he’s a more compelling Blomkvist than Swedish originator Michael Nyqvist, Craig still makes sure to present the character as a bit of a schlump, tamping down his leading-man charisma to allow Mara to decisively claim the spotlight. The duo’s often darkly funny rapport pays off with startling emotion in the final reels, perhaps the most gratifying surprise from a filmmaker whose temperament has generally been as frigid as the film’s Swedish landscapes. Casting elsewhere is perfect down to the smallest roles, particularly Robin Wright as Blomkvist’s gorgeous editor/lover; Stellan Skarsgard as Harriet’s genial brother, Martin; and, despite the excision of much of her material from the novel, Geraldine James as Henrik’s inquisitive grandniece, Cecilia. The slight variability of the ensemble’s Swedish accents (Craig retains his British enunciation) is a minor but not bothersome flaw.
With the outstanding assistance of d.p. Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Donald Graham Burt, Fincher has rendered a gray, vividly creepy world in keeping with Larsson’s cynical vision; spanning glassy modern offices and moneyed estates as well as squalid flats and rustic cottages, it’s a place where evil hides in plain sight, and even a well-appointed apartment or an island getaway can turn out to be a sicko’s torture chamber. At times carrying echoes of their work on “Social Network,” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score blends dread with driving momentum, establishing a richly unsettling mood with recurring dissonances, eerie wind chimes and pulsating reverb effects.