Director David Fincher's deluxe edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the most coldly compelling version yet of the tale dreamed up by the late Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium trilogy of pulp novels remains the time-killer of choice in airports, trains and, when the weather's right, beaches around the world.
Every composition, musical note, furtive glance and glint of metal (whether a nipple ring or a gleaming instrument of torture) serves a story purpose or adds another chilly textural detail. As with Fincher's Se7en and Zodiac, we're in the land of rampant psychopathology in a world nearly beyond saving. This also was the atmosphere of The Social Network, Fincher's previous film. Except that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was only making a killing, not killing.
Larsson's novels have already been filmed, in Swedish, in three separate features (shrewdly acted, indifferently directed). Fincher's English-language production, starring Daniel Craig as investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as ace researcher and heavily pierced bisexual fantasy pin-up Lisbeth Salander, was shot in many of the same forbidding Swedish locales used in the earlier films. With Fincher behind the camera, the imagery is as crisp and fastidious as it gets.
If there's something missing from this project, scheduled to be the first in a three-film juggernaut, it's a pretty big thing: a reason for being. I confess to having had enough of this story, these characters, this peculiarly popular narrative blend of sexual violence and serial slaughter. About the time of Zodiac (2007) Fincher spoke to various interviewers about that story's real-life subject and his interest in filming a mystery with no satisfying conclusion and as few audience-baiting impulses as possible. He also said that after Zodiac (a financial disappointment worldwide but Fincher's most interesting film) no one needed to make another serial-killer movie. Ever.
Unless there's a big pile of money in it, that is. In book and film form, Dragon Tattoo speaks a universal language: sick thrills from a moral high-ground position. Craftily condensed into 158 minutes, the adaptation by Steven Zaillian maximizes the relationship between Blomkvist and Salander, first as wary colleagues, then, briefly, as lovers. They go about nailing a killer of women and solving the riddle of a teenage girl's disappearance decades earlier.
All roads, icy and grim, lead to a rich extended family led by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), whose relatives, living on the same remote island, have a tremendous amount to hide, including Nazism, neo-Nazism and hideous personal peccadillos. By the end, Silence of the Lambs style, we're trapped in the lair of the worst of the worst.
The film is beautifully cast. Supporting ringers Plummer, Steven Berkoff (a business associate), Stellan Skarsgård (one of the relations) and Robin Wright (as Blomkvist's magazine colleague and lover) evoke persuasive shades of righteousness and evil, in a workable melange of Scandinavian and British dialects. Craig's journalist provides the humble, purposeful backdrop to Mara's more outre character.
A true survivor, Salander's no more dimensionally "human" than was Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, but like Chighurh, she's born for the movies — a story hook unto herself. Whether one just admires the picture or truly digs it will probably be determined within 30 seconds of the opening-credits sequence. I resist its assaultive glamour, as it morphs from black-liquid bodies melding together to fires being ignited. It's done in a way designed to elicit a "Wow. Cool."
Dragon Tattoo knows precisely how to achieve its look, rhythm, sound and spirit. It's extremely well made by a genuine and reliable talent. But I thought he was done with this sort of thing. Oh, well. If you needed another version of Larsson's proven combination of prurience and payoff, here you go.