Girl With Dragon Tattoo - Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig
Girl With Dragon Tattoo - Mentally unstable computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is enlisted by journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to help him solve a 40-year-old mystery © 2011 Columbia Tristar

Pictured above: Girl With Dragon Tattoo – Mentally unstable computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is enlisted by journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to help him solve a 40-year-old mystery © 2011 Columbia Tristar

More crime-story conventional and less shockingly graphic than pre-release hype may lead audiences to expect, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo succeeds almost in spite of its nothing-special serial-killer plot. That’s because the story’s snowy Swedish setting, and especially its two memorable main characters, are more interesting than whodunit and why.

Daniel Craig is disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has just lost a high-damages libel case. He normally would spurn an offer to write the memoirs of aged industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), but three aspects of the assignment make it irresistible: The job involves a substantial salary, Vanger’s family history includes a teenage girl’s unsolved disappearance and Vanger promises to provide damaging information about Blomkvist’s former legal opponent in exchange for a solution to the mystery.

Most of Vanger’s eccentric relatives, who include former Nazis, live near him on a private island four hours north of Stockholm. In 1966, 16-year-old Harriet Vanger vanished from the island without a trace. Mapping out family member photos on a wall in classic crimesolver fashion, Blomkvist sets about looking for motives and evidence the police may have missed.

Girl With Dragon Tattoo - Daniel Craig and Robin Wright
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and magazine editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright) share more than a working relationship © 2011 Columbia Tristar

Back in Stockholm, tattooed, pierced and robotically antisocial Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, utterly transformed from the wholesome student beauties she portrayed in Tanner Hall and Director David Fincher’s The Social Network) is dealing with the drawbacks that come with being a ward of the state at 23. The pale-skinned biker punk earns her living hacking cell phones and computers for a security firm. Thanks to previous incidents of mental instability, she must receive regular psychiatric reports to avoid being institutionalized — but her new legal guardian thinks his job includes oral sex and anal rape privileges. Salander’s vengeance is justifiably and unforgettably brutal.

Up north, Blomkvist uncovers enough clues about Harriet Vanger’s possible murder that he asks to hire a research assistant. The Vangers suggest Salander, who provided them with illegally obtained background info on Blomkvist himself.

Blomkvist and the much younger Salander finally meet more than an hour into the 158-minute movie, and the merger is more than the sum of its plots. Their relationship quickly moves beyond anything resembling paternalism into professional respect and unanticipated passion. Rooney’s fearlessly unselfconscious performance as the inhumanly dedicated Salander makes an indelible impression.

The handsome and tastefully appointed film forgoes anything resembling the showy flash of Fincher’s early films Se7en, The Game or Fight Club; even the rape and revenge scenes are more horror-movie conventional than transgressive. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their contribution to Fincher’s The Social Network, is likewise adequately atmospheric but not as interesting as their previous work.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay condenses but stays sufficiently faithful to Stieg Larsson’s nearly 600-page novel. That means the film includes an unlikely Salander coda requiring a skill set that would qualify her for a Mission: Impossible (or maybe Ocean’s 11) caper. For Blomkvist, the solutions to what turn out to be two mysteries are something of a letdown. Zaillian adds a trivial new wrinkle to the big reveal, although the movie is missing the book’s final-act trip to Australia, a bygone babysitter connection and any reference to Salander’s mother.

The American “Girl” film franchise (with two more novels to be adapted) ultimately may succeed because it’s impossible not to be interested in what the truly odd couple of Blomkvist and Salander will get up to next. (Swedish movies of all three books already have been released.) In this case, it’s not the play that’s the thing — it’s the intriguingly mismatched players.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is released in theatres today, December 21. The film is released in the UK on December 26, 2011 and in Australia on January 12, 2012


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.