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'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (R)

For much of the first hour of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you marvel at the movie’s sumptuous style, cringe at its grave horrors and wonder why, exactly, Fincher bothered to make it. The laborious mystery at the center of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster novel has already spawned a hit film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009. Fincher’s version — which isn’t so much a remake as it is a different take on the book — has a grander scale, more elegant images and a distinct, demonic energy. But the new movie initially feels redundant, like an old joke with a tired punch line. We know how this story ends, and it isn’t worth all this effort.

And then comes the first scene in which Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara appear on the screen together, and just like that, all is forgiven. Chemistry is one of the few things left filmmakers can’t fake with CGI, and the dynamic between Craig and Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is so sensational, it instantly propels the movie beyond glossy, high-toned pulp into something far more affecting. 

Mara, previously best known for playing the girl who dumped Mark Zuckerberg in the first scene of The Social Network, doesn’t court sympathy with her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, the goth-freak who has become a fashionable poster child for feminism. With her multiple piercings, a cadaverous pallor and a hermetic demeanor, Lisbeth is the sort of weirdo you would cross the street to avoid. But Mara never leans on the clichés of the brooding outsider or even Lisbeth’s bizarre taste in haircuts to bring her to life.

Instead, the actress uses subtle glances and body language and stillness to convey her character’s emotional turmoil. The performance is so thorough, Lisbeth’s otherness gradually melts away until you see the vulnerable, almost childlike person within. Mara lets you inside the heart of darkness Lisbeth inhabits, and you’re swept along as this troubled beauty hesitantly succumbs to an unexpected romance.

As Mikael Blomvkist, the reporter hired to investigate an unsolved crime, Craig is the prickly center of the movie – the audience surrogate into a maze of ghastly, ritual murder. Craig channels the confident arrogance of a journalist who has stumbled onto a criminal conspiracy, and he’s good, too, at playing the character’s casually brutal attitude toward women. When he takes up with Lisbeth, their carnal — but still tender — affair injects passion into this chilly movie. But will this lifelong womanizer realize the profound effect he’s having on this damaged young loner?

In adapting Larsson’s novel, screenwriter Steven Zaillian has streamlined subplots and supporting players for the sake of clarity, but he doesn’t short-change the central relationship at the heart of the story. Every aspect of this superbly made film is precise, from the remarkable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to the gorgeous widescreen compositions by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. But the impeccable technique doesn’t get in the way of the protagonists’ messy emotions. The movie is fastidious, but it still radiates an ice-cold heat.

With its heavy reliance on photographs, computer screens and old newspaper clippings, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is tailor-made for Fincher, who previously turned Zodiac into a masterpiece of police procedural and investigation, and elevated the serial-killer thriller into the realm of high art with Seven. A  famously obsessive filmmaker, Fincher is fascinated by research and detail, and you share the excitement Mikael and Lisbeth feel as they piece together the clues to a seemingly unsolvable crime. Beneath its macabre surface, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immensely playful movie: Leave it to Fincher to use Enya’s airy Orinoco Flow as a paean to sinister evil, or turn the sight of a dead cat into gruesome nightmare fodder. The film’s astounding opening credits, too, are the work of an artist in a cheerfully dark mood.

But the movie doesn’t take Lisbeth’s pain for granted, and after the central story has come to an end, the film hangs around to give Lisbeth bittersweet closure, just like the novel did. I’ve heard complaints that the last 15 minutes of  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feel superfluous and anti-climactic. But that criticism only implies that those people focused on all the wrong things in the movie. That’s nothing new for Fincher, whose pictures are often far more complex and deeper than they initially seem. This is a fabulously sinister entertainment that creeps you out and breaks your heart, too, and it blows away the Swedish-language film in every way, including a couple of new ones you never even considered. Didn’t see that coming.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Joely Richardson.

Director: David Fincher.

Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson.

Producers: Scott Rudin, Ceán Chaffin, Soren Staermorse.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 152 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, rape, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.