The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gives off a ripely kinky, menacing glow. It opens with psychedelic music-video credits, scored to Karen O’s caterwauling cover of Led Zeppelin’s ”Immigrant Song,” that set a mood of evil dipped in black rubber. That fanfare lets you know that the movie is going to have a sensuality and danger that the 2009 Swedish screen version, dutifully effective as it was, did not. Directed by the high-grunge master David Fincher (Zodiac, Se7en, The Social Network), the new Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sticks close to the spirit and most of the details of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish serial-killer novel, in which an officially disgraced left-wing journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), is hired to investigate a homicide that has haunted an aristocratic family for 40 years. Larsson’s plot is nothing more (or less) than a clever conventional whodunit festooned with glimmers of depravity. Fincher, however, teases out the full mythological grandeur of the material. He’s not just a great director — he’s an artist with the eyes of a voyeur, and he has made The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo into an electrifying movie by turning the audience into addicts of the forbidden, looking for the sick and twisted things we can’t see.
As Lisbeth Salander, the sullen 24-year-old waif hacker who’s the story’s spectacularly outlandish heroine, Rooney Mara is a revelation. She sports the spiky black plumage of a punkette peacock, with oversize earrings tightened onto her lobes like gears, pale-gray skin set off by barely perceptible eyebrows, choppy bangs, and piercings she wears like scars. Even when Lisbeth is standing still, her whole look is really an act of violence, an assault against decorum. It’s her way of fighting to be noticed, with a suppressed scream that says, ”Look at me — and stay away!” She’s like Clarice Starling crossed with Joan of Arc crossed with a homeless, fingerless-gloved teen sociopath. Lisbeth, who set her father on fire and has been in and out of a mental ward, is placed in the ”care” of a civil-servant parole officer named Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a bourgeois pig who not only treats her like a piece of meat but is supremely smug about his belief that he can get away with it. His assaults against Lisbeth rouse us to her side, culminating in an all-out violation that Fincher stages with naked horror. When Lisbeth returns to seek vengeance, armed with scurrilous video and a tattoo gun, she’s no trumped-up action heroine; she’s operating out of hell-bent instinct. Mara acts with a quiet power — a rage chilled into silence — that is almost ghostly.
Lisbeth works for a security firm that looks the other way at her laptop invasions of e-mails and corporate documents, and eventually, she teams up with Blomkvist. For a long time, though, the movie cross-cuts between the two of them. It follows Blomkvist as he’s hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the elder statesman of the Vanger clan, to come to the family’s frozen, wintry island and investigate the murder, back in 1966, of Harriet, a 16-year-old member of the family who disappeared the same day as a fateful car crash on the mainland bridge. Daniel Craig, edgy and alert, is at his saturnine best — though I do wish he’d tried for a Swedish accent, to give himself a slightly different persona than we’re used to.
When Lisbeth comes along and joins him as a researcher, the two have a wary, downbeat chemistry that is so unusual it’s transfixing. Lisbeth sees the case as a mirror of her own victimization. She’s fighting the men who fear and loathe women. Even her superstar hacking is presented as a feminine skill: a girl’s stealth entrée into the male power structure. At the same time, when she strips off her clothes and leaps into bed with the more-than-slightly-shocked Blomkvist, who has an on-and-off journalist girlfriend (Robin Wright) of his own, what Mara’s performance captures — and what Noomi Rapace’s, for all her skill in the Swedish version, didn’t — is that Lisbeth’s erotic ferocity is a product of the detached, cyber-porn era. She can jump Blomkvist’s bones because she compartmentalizes her desires.
The investigation hinges on old photographs from the day of Harriet’s disappearance, and Fincher manipulates these enigmatic images with a frame-by-frame dexterity worthy of the Zapruder film. Slowly, we watch as the victim watches the killer come into view. Who in the Vanger clan committed an unspeakable crime? The family is presented as a parade of rogues, deviants, misanthropes, and even Nazis, but really, this stuff all seems a bit musty. What’s fresh, in its ambiguity, is the creepy-elegant performance of Stellan Skarsgård. He plays Harriet’s brother, not to mention the Vanger descendant with by far the most spectacular kitchen — which, in a film this suspicious of old money, certainly targets him as someone to be watched. Many, of course, will go into the movie knowing just what happens. But even if you do, Fincher uses the resolution of the film’s crimes as a chance to stage a torture scene that is memorable in its sick-puppy majesty. I will say outright that the closest Fincher comes to genius in this film is his use of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” as a background aria of jaunty dread.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a brilliant franchise movie, but since it is a franchise movie, Fincher obviously felt duty-bound to retain the book’s somewhat lumpy structure. Once the mystery is solved, there’s still a major chunk to go of thorny financial-logistical gamesmanship. It’s not that this stuff is boring, but it does seem like an anticlimax. What redeems it, dramatically, is that it’s all framed through the eyes of Lisbeth, and Mara, without going soft, draws us to a quality deep inside her beyond her ability to solve a crime. By the end, Lisbeth can feel something, maybe a touch of tenderness. Even as she breathes fire. A