- - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“People will say there are a million ways to shoot a scene, but I don’t think so,” director David Fincher has been quoted as saying. “I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” In “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Mr. Fincher never picks the wrong shot.

The movie, based on Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s massively popular novel, is as meticulous as it is mesmerizing, steeped in a chilly mix of visual detail and gruesome incident. It is sometimes a hard film to watch, but even in the midst of its most gut-churning moments, it’s impossible to turn your eyes away.

Like “Seven” and “Zodiac,” two previous Fincher films, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is a serial killer movie. It’s also a self-contained murder mystery, and a feminist revenge picture. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it cannot entirely decide which it wants to be, and while each of the individual elements is handled masterfully, the combination is sometimes awkward.

Awkward also describes Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the movie’s titular hero, a bisexual goth-punk hacker with an all-black wardrobe, an occasional mohawk, and a studied collection of facial piercings. After exacting revenge on a sadistic Swedish welfare bureaucrat (Yorick van Wageningen), Salander teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), fresh off a lost libel lawsuit, to hunt down a serial killer amongst a family of bickering industrial magnates (including Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard) on a frosty private island. The murder mystery consumes the bulk of the film’s two and a half hour running time, but it is just one of the movie’s intertwined narratives of investigation and revenge.

Despite a number of salacious interludes, it’s the investigation that most interests Mr. Fincher. He’s been accused of being an overly intellectual filmmaker - a technical virtuoso with no heart. The classy, icy interpretation of Larsson’s racy pulp he delivers in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” probably won’t do much to change that reputation, but it’s a mistake to think of his work as distant; instead, it offers a different sort of intimacy. Mr. Fincher’s gift is getting inside the thoughts of emotionally stunted characters who live inside their own heads, and he’s frequently at his best when letting viewers watch someone work through the process of figuring something out.

Both the feral Salander and the moody Blomkvist are creatures of the mind, and the movie spends considerable energy showing viewers exactly how they come to know what they know. It’s a familiar theme within Mr. Fincher’s serial killer work: “Seven” questioned the permanence of moral understanding, “Zodiac” the fundamental nature of knowledge itself.

The questions posed by “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” aren’t quite so grand in scope. As a feminist revenge parable (the title of the original Swedish novel was “Men Who Hate Women”) the movie offers little more than an inversion of the tough guy/soft lady formula. But Miss Mara’s androgynous, anti-social heroine is a person, not a symbol, and the movie is better for it. Mr. Fincher’s direction may be flawless, but he had the good sense to ensure that his entrancing lead character isn’t.

★★★★

TITLE: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

CREDITS: Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Steve Zaillian

RATING: R for brutal rape, nudity, sex, and torture

RUNNING TIME: 158 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS