I feel like the last person on earth not to have read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Over the last few years, I’ve watched mystery buffs and non-readers alike lugging around the adventures of Lisbeth Salander before eagerly watching the Swedish film adaptations at the movies or on DVD, but the whole phenomenon has been a dog whistle that I never heard until seeing David Fincher’s much-anticipated “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
The result is a movie that is engaging almost from start to finish, although it’s hampered by some significant flaws — some, I can only guess, probably go all the way back to the source material. But much of the familiarity in the storytelling comes from Fincher himself, who seems to be rehashing concepts from his earlier successes “Seven” and “Zodiac.”
Odds are, you know the story: Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) loses a libel lawsuit against a wealthy financier and faces personal and professional ruin. Unbeknownst to him, he’s being thoroughly researched by computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) on behalf of corporate magnate Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Vanger hires Blomkvist ostensibly to write his memoirs, but what Vanger really wants is for Blomkvist to figure out what happened to Vanger’s niece Harriet, who disappeared decades earlier.
Vanger’s family is a creepy bunch indeed, riddled with internecine feuds and at least one former Nazi. And as Blomkvist investigates Harriet’s disappearance — eventually with Lisbeth’s help — he uncovers the trail of what appears to be a particularly vicious serial killer with a clear-cut M.O.
And that’s where we start getting into "Seven"/"Zodiac” territory. Not that Fincher doesn’t do this sort of thing extraordinarily well, but he has until now seemed like a director who can explore favorite themes without repeating himself. With “Dragon Tattoo,” it feels like he’s been sent on a lucrative arena tour that demands that he play his greatest hits over and over again.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay, like that of the recently-released adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” has the onerous task of introducing us to a gaggle of characters — there are at least a half-dozen Vangers for us to try and keep track of — and manages to keep everything and everyone clear in the viewer’s mind. (Even Larsson had to throw in a family-tree chart.)
Where Zaillian stumbles (and again, I’m assuming this goes all the way back to Larsson) is in the two lead characters — Lisbeth Salander has become something of a pop-culture icon, but I didn’t believe in her for a second, despite Mara’s valiant attempts. She’s a brilliant hacker with a photographic memory and is somehow able to accomplish anything she wants, except when it comes to her rapist social worker who attempts to exploit her before she gains the upper hand.
Blomkvist, on the other hand, seems like the most mealy-mouthed and inert investigative journalist who ever lived. I would say that the utterly passive Blomkvist is the Lois Lane to Lisbeth’s Superman, but that’s not fair to Lois Lane; perhaps he’s the Olive Oyl to her Popeye.
The other script flaw that also feels like the book’s fault is the ending — or rather, several endings, followed by a non-climax that reminds us that we’ve got two more sequels going.
On the technical side, everything about “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is first-rate. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth gives the film a chilly visual crispness that’s appropriate for the Scandinavian setting, and Fincher reteams “Social Network” composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who this time weave a perfect little symphony of dread throughout.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” provides all the jolts and forward motion that any good airport novel gives you, but this is the film equivalent of the book that kept you awake from Chicago to Baltimore, only you don’t feel bad about leaving it on the seat next to you after you land.