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Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has its revenge

David Fincher's sleek thriller transcends the Swedish original

A howling wind bedevils disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) when he travels to a remote Swedish community to investigate a 45-year-old murder in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mikael opens the case by moving to a cottage on a practically snowbound island owned by a family of wealthy eccentrics. The wintry weather provides a low, constant roar that leaves the audience shivering and cultivates a sense of snowy menace worthy of The Shining.

Meticulous movie director David Fincher brings out such rich, tactile details in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that he makes the 2009 Swedish version look like a rough draft. Both films were based on the novel by deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson, but Fincher delivers a far more moody and effective version of the same story. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo serves as a slick, compelling thriller, but also a more conventional entertainment compared to Fincher's groundbreaking movies such as Zodiac or The Social Network.

Retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires Mikael to solve the mystery of his teenage niece Harriet, who disappeared from the Vanger's island in 1966, when a bridge accident separated the isle from the mainland. Was she murdered, and if so, was the crime connected to a series of atrocities against women that Mikael uncovers? Flashbacks to the fateful day have a warm, dreamy glow compared to the present day's frozen color scheme. Fincher seems only mildly interested in the whodunit, with its isolated, Agatha Christie-worthy setting and its indistinguishable crowd of aging Scandinavian suspects.

The title role provides an understandable distraction. Rooney Mara, best known as Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend in The Social Network, plays Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial computer savant and ingenious researcher who dresses like a kinky punk rocker, with a pierced upper lip that gives her a perpetual scowl. Noomi Rapace's ferocious Lisbeth provided the best aspect of the Swedish version, but Mara portrays the character as both more vulnerable and less mentally stable. She's small-framed and skittish of human interactions that don't involve casual sex, but also capable of savage outbursts.

The modem-like shrieks and blasts of static on Trent Reznor's soundtrack evoke Lisbeth's preoccupation with the Internet. When her legal guardian begins to sexually harass her, the increasingly loud sound of a janitor's floor waxer in a distant hallway captures Lisbeth's dread. Later, Lisbeth exacts violent revenge on a sexual predator, her eyes so surrounded by thick black makeup, she could be wearing wraparound sunglasses. Here Mara seems almost exultant in her own rage and insanity, as if Lisbeth finally gives her demons free reign.

It takes nearly half the movie for Mikael to meet Lisbeth and hire her as his assistant. "I want you to help me catch a killer of women," he says, instantly seizing her interest. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo picks up momentum when the duo combine their skills, and occasionally echoes the obsessive attention to musty archives and tell-tale facts that drove Fincher's superb docudrama Zodiac. Lisbeth's ability to hack into anybody's computer or email gives her insights into people worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The film's subtext suggests that the Information Age can shed light on corruption and evil.

Apart from shaping Mara's performance, Fincher seems most excited by the provocative opening titles, a morphing series of oily black images that segue from motorcycle parts to USB cables to flowers to a man and woman in a violent embrace, accompanied by a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." If Hollywood adapts the other two books in Larsson's trilogy, it's easy to imagine the same title concept continuing throughout, like the James Bond credits.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo serves as a sleek, supercharged version of a pulpy best-seller, but doesn't transcend its genre the way films like Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs did. In all its versions going back to the source novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo flirts with a double standard.

The story decries misogyny and male violence against women, but by means of a heroine who seems like a male fantasy figure. A damaged, asocial victim of multiple kinds of abuse, Lisbeth Salander is also bisexually voracious, totally hot, and has the hand-to-hand combat skills of a comic book crimefighter. She's a compelling character and a great role, but seldom seems like a credible human being.