The easy part first: the David Fincher-directed and Steve Zaillian-scripted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better across the board than 2009's Män som hatar kvinnor, the Swedish adaptation of the same source novel by the late Stieg Larsson. The sole exception is the key role of that very same tattooed girl, where it's a push: in the new film, Rooney Mara is far closer to Larsson's depiction of Lisbeth Salander as an icy, furiously unemotional sociopath with a heart of gold, but Noomi Rapace's devastating anger makes for more arresting cinema. In both cases, the young actresses give a massively successful performance of a character that, arguably, would be best left unperformed: a "strong woman" who feels sort of like a grab bag of fetishes that a man who won't shut up about how much of a feminist he is might cultivate in the hopes of impressing women. But Larsson is dead, so I probably oughtn't criticise him.

Anyway, as I was saying, the easy part is that Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better in pretty much all of the important ways than the at times laughably small-scale Swedish picture; the hard part is that somehow, part of me would rather watch the Swedish one again, and I can't say why. Maybe because the grubby, borderline-exploitative subject matter seems like it rather deserves the slick, tacky treatment it already got in 2009, and not Fincher's pop-opera approach which is obviously trying to return to the nihilistic grandeur of the director's great, unutterably bleak Se7en, but keeps falling apart in the face of how painfully the material can't stand up to the amount of seriousness Fincher throws at it. The book is a pitch-black beach read; a gaudy melodrama with anal rape and Nazis thrown in because Stieg Larsson lacked a sense of proportion but knew how to keep you turning the pages. Fincher resists that essentially trashy core of the story, and his resistance comes powerfully close to breaking the movie.

For the uninitiated: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Men Who Hate Women if you prefer your titles accurately translated and viciously unsubtle, centers on Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a crusading leftish journalist and co-editor of a crusading leftish magazine called Millennium, who at the film's beginning, has just succeeded in driving his career into a brick wall by publishing inflammatory, and as it turns out untrue, charges about a corporate giant. Thus cast out of polite society, Blomkvist is approached by Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), the elderly assistant to the positively ancient industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who offers the journalist a job: look into the 40-year-old disappearance of Vanger's beloved niece Harriet, for a huge amount of money and the promise of being able to clear his name. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, who performed a background check on Blomkvist for Vanger, has her hands full with a new public guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who has a taste for raping his charges. Having executed a fairly nasty revenge on him, Salander accepts Blomkvist's request that she join as a research assistant when the Harriet Vanger case takes a turn for the epically convoluted.

Over one novel and two movies, the merits and flaws of this story have remained fairly constant. The merits: the sensationalism of the mystery plot, and the interplay between Blomkvist and Salander, a bitter, warped 21st Century variant on the dogged investigative journalist and his plucky Girl Friday. The flaws: the grinding exposition for the first two-thirds, before Blomkvist and Salander are thrown together (Zaillian's script streamlines this somewhat, gaining a speedier first hour at the expense of clarity and depth), the Ending That Won't (which is here considerably worse than in the Swedish film, though still not as plodding as the novel), and maybe worst of all, the colossally uninteresting resolution to the central mystery, which I'm not going to spoil, except that "we looked everywhere except where we didn't" is no kind of solution to a locked-room mystery. Also, the mere fact that the resolution of the mystery is a completely different thing than the ending of the movie ought to tell you how out of control and stretched out the dénouement is.

In all the important ways, this TGWTDT gets the job done up right: Mara's Salander is a pitch-perfect depiction of emotionless hyper-competence and implacable drive, and if she doesn't really resemble a human being, well... that is not what the character is about. Less splashy, but far more of benefit is Craig's Blomkvist: replacing Michael Nyqvist's bland take on the character last time with an actual for-real performance, Craig is the one who actually has to carry the movie, and his brisk, commonsensical attitude elevates the movie into something lighter and more sympathetic than the gruesome material and pop-nihilistic aesthetic than would otherwise have been the case.

The whole thing is stylish as anything, though I've already suggested that the style and the plot don't match each other, so much as the style tries to paper over the novel's seediness with absolutely no success. For a perfect example, let us look to the opening credits: a crazily dark and twisted series of images that feel like the most savage heavy metal cover of all time, set to a roaring cover of "Immigrant Song" by Karen O and Trent Reznor: it is a goddamn masterpiece of aggressive tone, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else in the movie, narratively or visually. That is the predominate feeling one gets with Fincher's direction and Jeff Cronenweth's noir-on-crack cinematography: it is all wildly stylish and exciting and it could not possibly be any more shallow.

Better that than no style at all, I guess. There's some parts that are in fact straight-up excellent: Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, Fincher's regular editors, have done perhaps their best work ever here, with deliberately unsettling and unconventional cuts that scream out at the audience like a series of slaps to the face; no quiet, continuity editing here. Reznor and Atticus Ross's score, while not as revelatory as what they did for Fincher's last film, The Social Network, slinks along with jarring chords and the occasional rock screech; it does more to create an effective sordid atmosphere than all of Fincher's over-worked and over-grand direction.

In the main, though, this is only a bit less grubby than the Swedish film, and not really as much fun, insofar as it kind of isn't any fun at all: Fincher makes certain that it is much more corroded than the previous movie, with an even more unsparing and disgusting rape scene, and an attitude so resentful and broken that even the nicest character moments still feel unpleasant. I can't find it in me to call it a bad film, because it isn't; on the contrary, the craftsmanship on display is uniformly excellent, with the only serious aesthetic flaw that the film is inconsistently Swedish: sometimes text is in English, sometimes not, and there's no rhyme or reason to why or in what context. But that's only a tiny flaw in what is otherwise an extremely handsome- no, not handsome, it's too bleached-out and grim to be handsome. It looks the way it should look, basically, and it acts the way it should act, and even though the whole thing is not nearly equal to the sum of its parts, those parts are all elegant enough that the movie taken as one is hardly a waste of time; just really damn frustrating and not half as engaging as it really ought to be.