"What is hidden in the snow comes forth in the thaw." That's the gloriously intense tagline on the poster for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and oh what a tangled web is revealed on the windswept Hedeby Island, home of the wealthy industrial Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and his fractious family. The murder investigation that takes place there, led by disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his testy punk assistant Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), makes up the twisty mystery plot that engaged millions of audiences in Stieg Larsson's original novel. But adapting the story with his usual flair for the dramatic and dark, David Fincher draws out themes and ideas that were barely present in the novel, creating a film that's less about the lugubrious story than the fascinating characters who inhabit it. It's a vast improvement on the source material, a brooding and gripping mystery that's captivating even if you know exactly how the story turns out.
Odds are a lot of audiences do know the story-- Larsson's novel is an enormous bestseller, and Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are careful to stick to the basic points of the novel, while also streamlining and making the story smarter. We follow our two heroes on parallel, totally separate tracks for nearly half the film, as Blomkvist suffers the fallout of his trial for libel and reluctantly travels up to Hedeby to accept an unusual assignment from Vanger, who 40 years later still obsesses over the unsolved murder of his niece Harriet. There's reason to suspect someone in the family did it, and as Blomkvist gets more tangled in the Vanger clan the story flips between him and Salander, a private investigator and hacker assigned at first to do a background check on Blomkvist before he was hired by Vanger. That's the only connection between the characters for a long time, as Salander deals in her own violent way with her abusive legal guardian and Blomkvist is isolated on Hedeby; by they meet, Craig and Mara have so expertly developed their characters that it feels like a head-on collision.
Larsson's original narrative is convoluted and often meandering, getting tangled in the intricacies of the Swedish legal system one moment and making room for about four different conclusions, none as explosive and dramatic as the moment when Blomkvist and Salander find their man. Zaillian and Fincher are only able to improve it so much, and there are still moments when the narrative seems to jet off after unnecessary tangents or linger too long on a minor point; and yet, when dealing with the central characters, Fincher brings laserlike focus and attention to detail. In one deft edit Fincher draws a comparison between Salander, a ward of the state who dresses in dingy black clothing to mask her physical weakness and battered soul, and Harriet Vanger, a girl of privilege who is still searched for 40 years after her disappearance. Tiny bits of body language immediately establish Blomkvist's affair with his editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright), and then set it up in stark contrast to his warming relationship with Salander. Even early scenes in which Blomkvist reluctantly takes in a stray cat have a powerful payoff-- ever meticulous, Fincher wastes not a moment in his long two and a half hour film.
Though there are no weak links in the enormous cast, and Plummer does especially sly work as Vanger, Rooney Mara's blazing, uncompromising performance is the film's center, practically its reason to exist. In the novel Salander was often seen from the perspective of a man, alien and fascinating and unknowable, but Fincher and Mara allow Salander to stand utterly on her own. Eyebrows bleached blond, hair jet black and scowling constantly, Salander has deliberately modeled herself as the opposite of the feminine ideal, and though Mara digs into her humanity and even sensuality, she never lets down Salander's guard for the sake of the audience sympathy. She and Craig build a rapport that buoys the film through its dark and occasionally exhausting plot, but it's Mara's steely gaze and clipped delivery that linger long after the movie is through.
As the third take on the story in as many years, Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo doesn't reinvent the tricky narrative, and at heart is a pulpy mystery story jazzed up with Swedish chill and a punk's devotion to the grim and grotesque. It's probably the best version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo we could ask for-- Fincher is joined by frequent collaborators like cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, all of them working in perfect concert. While the movie is still a little hampered by a narrative that can't be tamed, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo a bracing and completely absorbing thriller, hopefully just the beginning of a trilogy that's just as ferocious throughout.