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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

(R)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

The first thing fans of the late Stieg Larsson should know about this film is that it is a more faithful adaptation of the first installment in his "Millennium" trilogy. If this were a note-for-note remake of the 2009 Swedish version, detractors (and there are many of them) of this film might have a valid argument. If anything, the "Millennium" "purists" should take issue with the '09 version; it strays relatively far from the book.

The Swedish version did a tad over $10 million at the US box office -- which was good enough to place it 24th on the all-time Foreign Language list -- but it also came with subtitles and a heavily convoluted plot. The plot here is still intricate but without those pesky subtitles so lots more people (both in and outside of the U.S.) should and will give it a shot.

Much mud has also been slung regarding the casting of relative unknown Rooney Mara in the lead role of Lisbeth. For anyone who thought Mara couldn't get close to the level of excellence exhibited by Noomi Rapace in the first should wait until they see the film before passing judgment. Mara more than measures up to the demanding role -- one that, let's be honest -- has as much to do with wardrobe, hair and make-up as it does acting.

Wasting no time, director David Fincher gets right up in our face with an opening title sequence that is as visceral and disturbing as anything he's ever done. Considering this is the same guy that made "Se7en," "Fight Club" and "Zodiac," that's saying a great deal. Bathed in liquid black and gray and accompanied by composer Trent Reznor and singer Karen Orzolek's cover of the Led Zeppelin thrasher "The Immigrant song," it sets an appropriately grizzly, frantic and macabre tone.

Though released with an "R" this movie probably should have received an "NC-17" rating. In addition to intense consensual sex, there are two very graphic rape scenes, one of extended torture, hundreds of crime scene still photos of murder victims and another involving the death of a domestic animal that should send PETA members into a tizzy. Fincher and Sony deserve immense credit for not playing it safe while sticking so close to the source material and delivering a story that most viewers will find far too downbeat and disturbing. If however, you favor dark and despondent, you're in for a huge treat.

Once you get past the fitting visual assaults, you're left with a police procedural that ties together the Bible, Aryan supremacy, incest and a multigenerational, repressed, uptight Swedish family that gives the word "dysfunction" entirely new depth. Not generally prone to emotional outbursts or rage, the Swedes in Larsson's story remain calm and relatively polite while delivering their barbs or committing capital crimes. Being so blase about everything makes these folks all the more ominous and scary.

Those already familiar with the book and/or the first film need no plot details and unfortunately for those going in blind, a small serving of plot would be unfair and futile. Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian -- easily one of the three best screenwriters alive -- dissects and reassembles Larsson's labyrinthine tome and makes it easy to follow without ever dumbing it down. There's not a single extraneous word or gesture to be found. His only misstep -- and it is crucial -- is an inconsistency regarding the character played by Joely Richardson; pay close attention to her whenever she's being addressed on screen.

As he usually does, Fincher -- Kubrickian with his perfectionism and multiple takes -- makes the nearly three hour film go by in a flash. Every frame he includes adds to and propels the narrative. Kudos also to editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for their superb work here and each is all but assured richly deserved Oscar nominations.

The movie obviously isn't for all tastes but needs to be recognized by even those who might not care for it as a daring and bravura piece of moviemaking. It's one of the few American productions of this or any other year that takes so many chances and refuses to coddle the audience. (Sony/Columbia)