When I watched the original Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was very intrigued with the inherently unsettling nature of the material (as well as the great performances from leads Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist) but I found myself disappointed with the very conventional nature in which it was filmed. The tale is so dementedly lurid and disturbing, but that unease and hint of depravity never permeated the film (except for its most horrific moments). I’m a firm believer that form should follow function, and a dark tale deserves an equally dark style of filming, and the Swedish version never delivered. I knew before I watched the original that David Fincher was directing the American version, and as anyone who has seen Zodiac, Se7en, or Fight Club can attest, David Fincher is one of the true auteurs of dark and menacing cinema. He (along with the Oscar winning script of Aaron Sorkin) even managed to transform the tale of the founding of Facebook into a modern parable of greed and shattered loyalties. It should come as no surprise then that Fincher’s re-imagining of a conventional mystery (that happens to feed on reader’s darkest voyeuristic fears) should stand head and shoulders above the 2009 original and possibly even Larsson’s novel. Proving himself yet again as one of the most under-appreciated talents in Hollywood, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the rare event film that lives up to its promises.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a whodunit in the classic vein with fascinating characters and settings to offset its more well-worn plot. Mikael Blomqvist (current James Bond, Daniel Craig) is a Swedish investigative journalist (who for no apparent reason has a British accent) who has been publicly disgraced after he accuses a wealthy industrialist of criminal activities but is instead successfully sued for libel. Lisbeth Salander (Youth in Revolt‘s Rooney Mara) is a 24 year old computer hacker and poster child for goth fashion working for a security firm as a researcher for background investigations and other sensitive issues. A ward of the state (for setting her father on fire when she was a little girl) Lisbeth is the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her state appointed guardian. Mikael is hired by Henrik Vanger (The Last Station‘s Christopher Plummer), another wealthy businessman, to investigate the 40 year old unsolved murder of his niece, Harriet. Before long, Mikael and Lisbeth cross paths and team up to take down a decades long conspiracy of serial killers, nazis, and unspeakable abuses against women all while navigating the minefield that is the Vanger clan.

As highly as I spoke of Noomi Rapace’s performance in the original film, Rooney Mara simply blew away all expectations. Combining all of the fiery strength and righteous fury that made Noomi Rapace so captivating with even more complex layers of vulnerability and nuanced emotions, Mara has given the best female performance since Natalie Portman last year in Black Swan (although to be fair I haven’t seen very many of the award type films of 2011 yet [I’ll get there]). Much like Carey Mulligan in An Education in 2009, we have a young actress who may have had a few small roles here and there in her past, but she steps up to the bat in a huge way for what will surely be her break out film. Very few actress can give such naked performances (emotionally and literally) without coming off as slightly over the top. But I was consistently wowed by Ms. Mara’s seemingly veteran chops, and I know she’s going to be a force to reckon with in the future. Daniel Craig was serviceable even if he was the only person in the film without a Swedish accent. Stellan Skaarsgard (Thor) was also exceptional as one of the members of the Vanger clan, and he remains a foreign talent who fortunately gets the American attention he deserves.

Again with the references to Black Swan, but not since Darren Aranofsky took me down the rabbit hole with last year’s Black Swan have I enjoyed simply looking at a film as I did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (though once again, I haven’t seen Melancholia and The Tree of Life which are the big artsy films of the year). Style is first and foremost in this film (as the plot itself can get a little messy) and David Fincher creates perhaps his most visually unique film since Se7en. Whether it’s the desolate yet gorgeous shots of the Swedish landscape or a dark-lit and grungy apartment building, Fincher either includes so much detail in any given shot that you spend as much time examining the frames as listening to the story or its composed in such a simply striking manner that you are forced to recognize just how much work and artistry went into every frame. The lighting is generally superb and Trent Reznor has secured himself another Oscar nomination (if not another win) for his score. Even when the composition of a shot isn’t contributing to the overwhelming sense of tension and depravity, Fincher works within the bounds of the plot to simply add more life and terror to the minutiae of the investigation at the core of the film than the original film could ever manage.

My only complaint with the film is essentially one of the same problems I had with the first. No matter how disturbing and creepy this tale can be, it is just your average detective story, and unlike Fincher’s earlier film, Zodiac, watching the mystery become unraveled isn’t quite as much fun as it should be. It has some pacing problems here and there although since it’s over two and a half hours long that is to be expected. The movie takes a little longer to get off its feet than I remember from the first (though that does give us time to better know our two heroes), and it’s last twenty minutes drag and could have used the similar editing that they received in the Swedish version. It’s not the most puzzling mystery you’ll see on screen and I called who the killer was during my first viewing and my sister knew who it was when we saw Fincher’s version together (though I feel like he televises the solution a little more obviously than the Swedish film), so there’s no “I’m Tyler Durden” moment in this film that you’ll be talking about in ten years although you may leave the theater unable to shake its most nightmare inducing scenes for the next several weeks.

At the end of the day, all fans of Fincher’s previous films should watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In a world where the most prominent female heroes are the almost useless Sookie Stackhouse and Bella Swan, a fierce and determined female with her own distinct identity like Lisbeth Salander is a feminist breath of fresh air. This film can be extremely graphic and while the scenes of sexual abuse and rape are not played for exploitation, they will not be for everyone and I saw people walking out of the theatre because they could not handle the very intense nature of this film. David Fincher continues to make his name as one of the best directors in the country, and his vision (along with her fiery performance) has hopefully shot Rooney Mara to stardom. I will be watching the two Swedish sequels in the coming weeks to prepare myself for the remaining films in the trilogy when they finally come stateside as I simultaneously pray that David Fincher remains to direct this franchise to conclusion. Along with Darren Aranofsky and David Lynch, he owns his vision for his films, and the series wouldn’t be the same without him. Crime thriller fans owe themselves a quick jaunt to their local multiplex and into madness for you will surely not be disappointed.

Final Score: A