Let's be generous and call Stieg Larsson's juggernaut Millennium Trilogy — anchored by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — a modern fairy tale rather than an endless procedural driven by sphincter-clenching violence and cloudy logic. The story's vengeful, wraithlike heroine, Lisbeth Salander, seems descended from Grimm stories or Norse legend, part victim and part deceiver, not quite real. Gifted with certain preternatural skills and feral instincts, she has been sent by the gods — or by Random House — to punish evil men. Punish evil men real good, in the ass.
All right, all right, that part isn't so generous. Sorry. But if you've seen the Swedish movies or read the books, you know: ow, ow, ow.
The Swedish film versions plod along, chilly and workmanlike, so straight-faced about the misogynistic brutality and primal bloodshed within as to be unintentionally funny. Which is one reason that moviegoers far and wide popped little box-office boners at the news that David Fincher would direct the English-language version of Tattoo. Fincher, who was so deft with procedural minutiae and bad behavior in Zodiac and The Social Network, seemed the perfect choice for turning this sick shit into glossy, awesome-looking sick shit. Because, you know, who else?
Kathryn Bigelow, maybe? Someone not a dude?
Working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian, Fincher has made an undeniably skilled, watchable movie, though it clings tightly to the book's plot. (You know it already, right? Let's be generous there, too, and assume yes.) Which means it's still chilly and workmanlike, even if the craft on display is an order of magnitude better than the original films. And it's still finally about the men more than it's about Salander (played here by Rooney Mara as someone perhaps touched more by Asperger's syndrome than by dark angels), who must save Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) from death, professional ruin and snowed-in cock (not in that order). That this fails to fulfill her is no surprise, but the late Larsson wasn't a self-help writer, and there are sequels to think about.
If Fincher and Zaillian had pushed harder, they might have found some odd character magic absent from Larsson's hoary plot. (They might at least have toned down the absurdity of a bad guy with a Bond villain's secret lair. Who do you call to have an underground kill room installed?) What lingers isn't Salander, or Mara's performance. Just the visceral discomfort of having witnessed some really sick shit, expertly filmed.