Director David Fincher’s Apple-powered rendition of the late Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed Scandinavian serial killer noir veers between the engaging and the stilted, an unhappy combination that emerges from trying to compress a tangled story line into two-plus Hollywood hours. The result is split narratives, with the two coupling only in the waning half-hour, which is too little, too late.
After Stockholm investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is convicted of libeling business titan Hans-Erik Wennesrtröm, he finds himself recruited by another tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to probe the unsolved disappearance of his daughter Harriet from the family’s northern island in 1966. In return, he offers Blomqvist potential dirt on nemesis Wennesrtröm.
With time on his hands, the disgraced Blomqvist takes up residence on the island, befriends a cat, and begins digging into what Vanger calls “the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet,” which is when Fincher introduces Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara), a security detective who helped Wennesrtröm get the goods on Blomqvist during the libel trial. She, of course, is the tattoo girl, a bitter 23-year-old bisexual ward of the state hauling around a lifetime of abuse, on which she’s been both the giving and the receiving end. Her newest guardian, Nils (Yorick van Wageningen), also happens to be her latest tormentor, and Fincher does anything but flinch — veering instead into abject voyeurism.
The story’s two strands, Blomqvist on the family island, and robotic Lisbeth dealing with the violence against her, occupy two-thirds of the choppy narrative, leaving very little time for what matters most, namely the odd twinning of journalist Blomqvist and loose-cannon sleuth Lisbeth as they try to get to the center of an occult murder mystery involving the systematic assault and killing of women over two generations.
Craig’s Blomqvist seems wooden, as if chafing at both role and script, while Mara’s emaciated, stylistically stark and occasionally ferocious Lisbeth lacks the depth necessary to sustain empathy. Fincher wants it both ways: telling book readers a story they know by heart (the 2005 novel has sold 15 million copies worldwide) while keeping Larsson neophytes intrigued via ominous Nordic hues and Lisbeth’s reckless sexuality. It’s not a happy marriage, which the messy addition of a coda about chasing down Wennesrtröm doesn’t help.