Disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is approached by wealthy but ailing patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery that has haunted his family for decades. Forty years ago someone murdered Henrik's beloved niece, Harriet. Though her body was never found, each year the killer seemingly taunts Henrik by sending him pictures of flowers, of the kind his niece once drew. Blomkvist probes the mystery and is drawn into a web of conspiracies involving former Nazis, corruption and a serial rapist-murderer. In desperation he enlists the same ingenious investigator who had previously profiled him, tattooed punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
In the interest of fair disclosure one must admit having never seen the original Swedish screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson's iconoclastic thriller starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, though presumably that would be something shared in common with the target audience for this slick David Fincher version. Whenever Hollywood adapts a cherished foreign property for a so-called "mainstream" audience there is bound to be considerable controversy, however neither the 2009 version nor Rapace's performance were considered quite as definitive by fans of the novels as some would have us believe. In fact, Fincher was lauded for including scenes excised from the Swedish version and exploring the characters in greater depth. Neither a box office bomb nor the blockbusters its producers were hoping for, the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nonetheless an edgy, intriguing thriller admirably aimed at intelligent grown-ups. Fincher's fluid direction coupled with strong chemistry between his two fantastic leads ensures the film stays consistently compelling, despite its unwieldy story structure due less to the sterling efforts of gifted scripter Steve Zaillian than the labyrinthine source material.
Things kick off with a pulse-pounding credit sequence set to a techno cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", but thereafter Fincher dials down the bombast and adopts a more thoughtful and measured approach exhibiting the kind of attention to nuance and character detail film bores claim died out with the Seventies. His glacial visuals strike an aptly ominous tone the plot then expands into an all-pervading atmosphere of unease. Seething evil lurks beneath those Ikea furnished interiors. It takes more than an hour before Lisbeth and Blomkvist share the screen, arguably too long although Fincher deftly merges their two subplots together - including Lisbeth's sexual abuse at the hands of an odious civil servant - drawing clever parallels between their psychologies, social circumstances and moral outlook. Like all great detective duos, they are two halves of a dynamic whole. Larssen mounted his novels as much social satires as mystery-thrillers and Fincher upholds this theme of outsiders battling against a corrupt state and the complicity between big business, fascism and social depravity. Strong scenes of sexual violence drew criticism but are there for a point. While graphic, they are not exploitative and prove effectively upsetting.
Given the character of an ass-kicking, bisexual, bipolar, punk computer genius could so easily have lapsed into a fetish figure, an Oscar nominated Rooney Mara - last seen in the appalling A Nightmare on Elm Street remake - ably conveys Lisbeth's multifaceted nature. Daniel Craig gives a typically strong performance, underlining the film's intent to craft a loving relationship amidst an otherwise bleak world-view. Having said that, one would be interested to know whether the shift in the heroes' relationship from platonic to overtly sexual was present in the original or altered for the sake of courting mainstream appeal, although the resulting sex scenes inject an amusing and surprising amount of deadpan humour. Although the core mystery itself is disappointingly less complex than it initially appears, the shift from serial killer thriller into an international conspiracy worthy of one of Craig's Bond movies is intriguingly done, even if the film is as slow to end as it is to get going. The low-key yet emotionally-stirring coda is a nicely offbeat way to wrap things up.