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Stylish, well-acted 'Dragon Tattoo' leaves an indelible mark

Rooney Mara plays the titular
Rooney Mara plays the titularMerrick Morton / AP


In the end, there's not much extra even David Fincher can bring to "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." This fastidious, technically stellar Hollywood telling of one of the great literary sensations of recent times is highlighted by a bewitching performance from Rooney Mara as the punked-out computer research whiz Lisbeth Salander and remains an absorbing story, as it was on the page and in the 2009 Swedish screen version.

But for all the skill brought to bear on it, the film offers no surprises in the way it's told (aside from a neatly altered ending) and little new juice to what, for some, will be the third go-round with this investigation of the many skeletons in the closet of a powerful Swedish corporate family. Dedicated Fincher fans are likely to find this redo rather more conventional and less disturbing than "Seven," "Fight Club" and "Zodiac," all of which end far less reassuringly. Box office returns for this dark Christmas offering will certainly be big, although it will be interesting to gauge if "Tattoo" is still as major a part of the zeitgeist as it was a year or two ago.

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Although Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish adaptation, which ran 152 minutes (180 in an extended version), was perfectly solid, if not particularly stylish, and boasted a fine cast, there was cause to suspect that one of the best American directors now working would bring something extra to this exactingly lurid tale of a disgraced journalist and his kinky accomplice who chart the untold depths of depravity, old Nazi sympathies and serial murder in the vaunted Vanger clan.

From the outset, it's unmistakably a Fincher film; the superlatively sharp visuals, the immaculate design, the innate knack for melding sound and music, the chill and menace evoked from both modern cities and open spaces, the beautiful people marked by deep scars and flaws -- all feel part of his habitual landscape.

The director and his crafty scenarist Steven Zaillian skate through the exposition so fast that, if one weren't already familiar with it, it might be difficult to absorb it all. Very quickly, we learn (or are reminded) that seasoned journo Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has his reputation and bank account wiped out by losing a libel case brought by scammy big bucks investor Wennerstrom; that Mikael has a long-term casual thing going with Erika (Robin Wright), his editor at the now-imperiled maverick journal Millennium and that, with the inducement of a hefty payday and a promise of helping him nail Wennerstrom down the road, he accepts a job from the Vanger family patriarch, Henrik (Christopher Plummer), to privately investigate the disappearance, and presumed murder, of his beloved 16-year-old niece Harriet way back in 1966.

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With the feeble cover of writing a biography of the courtly Henrik, Mikael hunkers down in a chilly cottage on Henrik's vast estate in the north of Sweden just after Christmas, surrounded by piles of documents and a quickly filling wall of Post-Its, notes and photos. He also meets assorted family members, most of them suspicious of Mikael and some of them not on speaking terms with one another. The most affable of them seems to be Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), the missing Harriet's brother, who now runs the vast company, which “built modern Sweden” with its industrial initiatives but is now in a downward slide.

Back in Stockholm, Vanger attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff, now resembling a cross between Anthony Hopkins and Otto Preminger) has used wild girl rogue researcher Lisbeth to check out Mikael, whose computer skills are as impressive as her manners are atrocious. Festooned with multiple piercings, tattoos, a haircut that might pass muster in Borneo and an anti-social attitude that could clear a wide path for her through any crowd, the slightly built Lisbeth remains a ward of the state whose new piggish guardian coerces her into sexual favors, then rough rape, in exchange for the money she's due. Her astonishing revenge, clearly depicted here but not lingered over, is already one for the annals.

The film pushes through all these preliminaries, not with haste, exactly, but in such a compressed way that there is little sense of lullingly enveloping the viewer into the narrative web; it just rushes you into it, like the fast train that shuttles the characters between Stockholm and snowy Hedestad. Lisbeth doesn't arrive there until after the halfway point, 85 minutes in, enlisted by Mikael to make sense of some Biblical references and the unsolved murders of several women many years earlier while he continues to piece together the mystery of Harriet's disappearance.

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As readers will know, things get very hairy in the basement of one of the Vanger homes, although Fincher stops short of making this as horrific as it might have been. On the other hand, there is the fresh pleasure of a key interlude from the book that the Swedish film omitted, that of Lisbeth's eventful trip to Switzerland in disguise, and the new resolution of the Harriet story is clever and plausible enough.

Often unkempt and largely stripped of the political core with which Larsson equipped him, Mikael is a fractionally less interesting character here than in the previous film, and Craig, while entirely watchable, doesn't reveal much that's going on inside him beyond what's already called for on the surface. His mild Swedish inflections in early scenes soon give way to a straight English accent, even as the speech of others remains consistent in a mid-North Sea sort of way. Craig and Wright play well together, sparking the wish they shared more scenes.

So it's Mara's movie for the taking, and she snatches it up in dramatic fashion. Unforgettable in the opening scene of "The Social Network" last year, she remained untested in a demanding role, but Fincher's belief in her is borne out in a dominating performance of submerged rage, confidence and defiance. Baring all in the several sex scenes, both coerced and consensual, she goes all the way in a performance that compares favorably to that of Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version and its two sequels. She comes across here as the real deal.

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In the astutely selected cast of largely British and Scandinavian actors, Skarsgard crucially gives Martin a sociable surface, Plummer exudes the required charm as the cultivated gent in charge, Yorick van Wageningen has just the right piggish bulk for the loathsome rapist, Joely Richardson shines as a daughter long estranged from her unsavory relatives and Berkoff handles legal and expository details with aplomb. It almost goes without saying that all the craft contributions, visual and aural, are exemplary.

There was never any question that Fincher was the perfect director for this job; the material is right down the middle of the plate for him. But in his best and most unnerving films, there's the sense of him pushing deeper, darker and beyond where most filmmakers go, into the unknown, areas you enter at your own risk. As the only intrigue and unanswered questions here involve Lisbeth herself, Dragon Tattoo is too neatly wrapped up, too fastidious to get under your skin and stay there.

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