Something's missing. I felt it last month when I initially saw the American film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the bestselling Millennium trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. On second viewing, I still feel a letdown. How could I not? David Fincher, the director of a handful of films I revere, from Fight Club, Seven, Panic Room and Zodiac to last year's masterful The Social Network, is at the helm. From him, expectations are high for a transgressive take on the book's search for a serial killer of women. From him, we get – what? – a faithful adaptation that brings the dazzle but shortchanges on the daring.
Fincher chose well in Rooney Mara (she's unforgettable dumping Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg in the opening scene of The Social Network). Mara is astonishing as Lisbeth Salander, the pierced, bisexual, tattooed twentysomething hacker who teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a curiously wan Daniel Craig) to unearth secrets in the family of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), an industrialist who thinks his grandniece, Harriet, was murdered 40 years ago.
Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth capture the chill of Vanger's private island and the despicable family tree of Nazis, killers and incestuous pervs. Unlike the juicy pulp of Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 Swedish adaptation, with a fierce Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, Fincher's Girl is elegantly austere, as though the material merited an artful gaze instead of crass energy.
Girl moves in fits and starts as if screenwriter Steve Zaillian felt no minor character unworthy of a share in the film's two hours and 40 minutes. Though the actors give their all, notably Stellan Skarsgård as the brother of the missing Harriet and Joely Richardson as an estranged relative, the film hangs back when you want it to come out swinging. Only Mara lets it bleed. Her defensive, bruised-animal performance inexorably draws you in. Lisbeth is a hunter of male predators, and her takedown of her rapist guardian (Yorick van Wageningen) is justifiably graphic. But what pulls her toward Mikael? Craig's distant, self-amused performance offers no clues. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall excel at crosscutting between Lisbeth and Mikael, separately investigating the case with orgasmic relish. But when the two hook up in Mikael's cabin and Lisbeth strips to jump his bones, the expected sparks – sexual and soulful – never materialize. The thrumming score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, along with a slashing opening-credit scene in which Reznor and Karen O rework Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," promise a fire the film fails to stoke. Even the altered ending gives no offense. Fincher's Girl is gloriously rendered but too impersonal to leave a mark.