<i>The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo</i>
Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig star in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
(Credit: Merrick Morton)

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 was previously turned into a hit film by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev in 2009. Fincher’s version – which isn’t so much a remake as it is a different adaptation of 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.

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 spontaneous and sensational, it instantly elevates the movie beyond high-toned pulp into something far more affecting.

This film is the first in an intended series based on Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. But the two actors, not necessarily the convoluted plot, leave you wishing the director would hurry up and shoot the next movie.

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 eponymous goth-girl. 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 loner or even Lisbeth’s bizarre taste in haircuts, to bring her to life. Mara commits to the character fully, conveying the profound emotional turmoil and dysfunction churning inside Lisbeth. She gives you a glimpse into the heart of darkness she inhabits, and you can’t help but be swept along as this troubled young woman succumbs to an unexpected romance. She practically transforms before your eyes.

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 embodies 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 relationship with women. When he takes up with Lisbeth, their carnal – but still tender – affair injects heat into this chilly movie. But will this lifelong womanizer realize the profound effect he’s having on this damaged young woman?

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 creative 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 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 journalistic investigation and elevated the serial-killer thriller into the realm of high art with Se7en. A famously obsessive filmmaker, Fincher is fascinated by research and detail, and he makes you share his excitement as Mikael and Lisbeth piece together the clues to a seemingly unsolvable crime.

Beyond its brooding 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 (who knew?), 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 treat the pain of its heroine lightly.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fabulously sinister entertainment, but it breaks your heart, too. Who expected that?

©2011 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo releases in theaters Dec. 21.

For more information, visit dragontattoo.com.