The degree of its popularity is a mystery, but not the reason: The late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a satisfying lefty-feminist revenge saga, its villains alternately venal super-capitalists, government-empowered sodomite-rapists, and neo-Nazi serial killers, its heroine a visibly damaged but single-minded and resourceful righter of wrongs. The verbiage and inept translation didn’t matter to millions of readers, and neither did the TV-movie flatness of the hit 2009 Swedish movie, which was at least faithful to the prose. More than that, the film had Noomi Rapace, who made the studded hacker chick Lisbeth Salander inaccessible, unpredictable, feral. With her angular, young-old face, Rapace never went soft on the character. The chip on her shoulder remained the size of a planet.
David Fincher’s American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adds nothing to the previous adaptation, but it’s certainly the more evocative piece of filmmaking. Fincher has to grind along to get in all that plot (Steven Zaillian’s script hurriedly hits its marks, with few grace notes), but his brusque, clinical touch — especially when the film shifts from Stockholm to the frigid north — keeps you off balance even when you know what’s ahead. The Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross score preys on your nervous system, its ambient drone punctuated by clanks and dissonant chimes, which sound as if they’re being blown about by Arctic winds. (The credits sequence, with its volcanic silhouettes, lavalike black vinyl, and Karen O.-caterwauled cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” is a spellbinder.) At first, the decision to make the largely Brit and American cast speak English in Swedish accents is a hoot, but you do get used to it, and it adds to the alien vibe. As usual in Fincher’s movies, no one in the cast looks comfortable: Their nervousness around their exacting director is infectious.
Daniel Craig is very compelling as the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, a man so traumatized by the loss of a libel suit that he never gets entirely up to speed and is, in any case, unused to physical heroics. No 007, Blomkvist needs all the help he can get from a girl with a dragon on the outside and inside, and when he and Salander finally meet (after almost an hour), the movie kicks into gear. The rest of the cast — suspects in the decades-old disappearance of a young woman, scion of a large and wealthy industrial family — is properly stiff, with Stellan Skarsgard especially clammy. You know a film’s emotional temperature is low when its warmest actor is the hoary Christopher Plummer as the uncle of the missing girl.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stuns or slumbers on the power of its Salander, and Rooney Mara is … functional. With her wide blue-gray eyes and lofty cheekbones, she’s more conventionally model-like than her Swedish counterpart, and she lets those eyes do much of the work. Her Salander is a punked-out waif, as pale and blank as the masked Edith Scob in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Her lack of affect makes her violent eruptions more surprising than Rapace’s, but she often just looks posed, a puppet of her director. Fincher is an undies-and-butt man, and his camera fastens on her like a ripe sexual object — something I suspect would make Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander want to stick a fork in his eye. But the movie delivers. It brings the hate.