The temptation with something so massively popular as Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is to hold up subsequent adaptations to everything that came before it, whether it's the original books or the first versions to hit theaters. Fight that temptation. David Fincher's thrilling take on the first chapter of the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, doesn't reinvent the story of an investigative journalist who gets involved with a pierced and tattooed troublemaker. But it does cast it in a new, eye-opening light.
The plot remains the same: Fortysomething Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a writer slapped with a libel suit, goes to work for a wealthy industrialist (Christopher Plummer) to make ends meet, looking into the disappearance of the old man's grand-niece 40 years earlier. As Mikael gets deeper and deeper into the family's messed-up history, he takes on an assistant: 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an antisocial, bisexual computer hacker who may or may not be a little insane.
You can't blame her, though. She's been kicked around a lot, but has learned how to handle herself. She drives a motorcycle, hates authority, dislikes people in general — and men especially. So when she learns that Mikael's investigations lead to a serial killer of women, she's eager to help.
Fincher keeps the action in Sweden, perhaps as tribute to Larsson's original vision, or maybe it's because the cold climate fits the story. Lisbeth is not particularly attractive, or even very likable. She grabs our sympathy from time to time, but she's not a typical screen heroine. She's a cold, calculating, and complex young woman with as much baggage as secrets, and Mara nails the pale, androgynous tones that have made Lisbeth one of the most vibrant characters of the past decade.
But it's Mikael, her colleague/confidant/lover, who carries so much of the movie's weight. The trilogy may tell Lisbeth's story, but it's Mikael who keeps it moving. Craig's natural steeliness is a perfect fit with Mikael's determination to crack the mystery at the center of the movie.
Fincher's take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo burns with an energy that's missing in the original Swedish movie from 2009. Noomi Rapace had more of an electric presence than Mara does here, but this is the better film.
Perhaps it's not as forceful as Fincher's best work, but as he did in The Social Network last year, he turns even long, mundane moments into crucial pieces of the puzzle. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn't a simple movie. The story is a slow build, and the payoff isn't immediate (there are still two more parts until Lisbeth reaches some sort of resolution). But in its own hypnotic way, it pulls together two stories, Mikael's and Lisbeth's, until they intersect at one sweet spot.