Hollywood has commandeered Sweden's big literary export, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," without compromising the story's Scandinavian roots or its top-of-the-world, Seasonal Affective Disorder sense of barrenness, even hopelessness.
It could have been transplanted Stateside for American audiences, but thankfully, what happens in Sweden stays in Sweden in David Fincher's stark but enthralling adaptation of the first novel in late author Stig Larsson's trilogy.
Its harsh emotional terrain, where cruelty flourishes and compassion suffocates, could have wound up softened and sweetened, yet this was an ideal match of filmmaker and material. Fincher's one of the least sentimental directors in Hollywood. If anything, his "Dragon Tattoo" is even bleaker than the 2009 Swedish-language hit.
Those preliminaries aside, here's the really good news: this movie kicks ass. Rooney Mara, who had a small role in Fincher's "The Social Network," gives a controlled detonation of a performance as traumatized victim-turned-avenger Lisbeth Salander. Mara's the breakout star of the year, a cold, detached waif in form, a fearsome, merciless zealot in spirit.
How strange it is to say that the nice guy here is Daniel Craig — who, of all the big-screen James Bonds, comes closest to the nasty, tortured soul Ian Fleming created.
Mara and Craig make an indomitable screen pair, he nominally leading their intense search into decades-old serial killings, she surging ahead, plowing through obstacles with flashes of phenomenal intellect and eruptions of physical fury.
A ward of the state since an act of childhood violence, Lisbeth has been at the mercy, and mostly the malice, of others for so long that she anticipates and incorporates their brutality into her own calculations for maintaining control of her life.
Peerless as a computer hacker, Lisbeth finds occasional employment with a security company, for whom she runs a not-too-legal background check on disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig).
The company's client, retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Mikael to make a last-ditch effort to find out who killed his beloved teenage grand-niece, who vanished 40 years earlier.
Mikael eventually persuades aloof, suspicious Lisbeth — who has every reason in the world to revile men as a loyal order of perpetrators of violence against women — to join his investigation.
The film is gripping early on, when Lisbeth and Mikael are on their own. Once they team up, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" takes on a relentless though unhurried momentum as the two find links between the girl's disappearance and a series of murders of young women butchered in unspeakable ways.
Craig is an anchor of cool rationality and judiciousness around which Mara revolves like a demon. With her body piercings, black leather and hooded jackets that seem like her version of a mad monk's cowl, Lisbeth tears about icy Sweden on her motorcycle, wan, scrawny, scarier than any of the night creatures in Hollywood's glut of vampire movies.
She is horribly violated by a social worker appointed as her new guardian, a sickening scene balanced by Lisbeth's equally bestial act of vengeance. You perversely want to cheer Lisbeth for her triumph while bemoaning the world that made her such a pitiless creature.
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, an Academy Award winner for "Schindler's List," again adapts a dense literary work with a sharp eye for the most critical exchanges. Craig shares some delicious moments with Plummer, along with Robin Wright as his lover and magazine co-owner and Stellan Skarsgard as one of the more personable members of the rather despicable Vanger clan.
Rarely a filmmaker of brevity, Fincher gives Zaillian room to let the story and characters reveal themselves slowly.
The film could stand some surgery to nip away at the excessive, repetitive sequences of discovery as Lisbeth and Mikael endlessly scan old photos, files and newspaper clippings. We get that they're ace researchers; we don't need to see so much of the paperwork.
What is wonderful to see is the grand severity of the northern Sweden landscapes. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth captures the coldness of the climate and remoteness of the countryside in a tactile fashion to complement the frosty and distant nature of the characters.
This is a team that deserves an encore, and Larsson left behind two more novels loaded with more dark doings for Lisbeth and Mikael. We haven't seen the last of this tattooed girl.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language. Running time: 158 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.