Steve Zaillian is a genius.
I cannot recall a smarter, slicker, smoother adaptation of a successful novel than Zaillian's screenplay for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Stieg Larsson's runaway bestseller about the hunt for a girl who disappeared in 1966 is blazingly intricate, weaving multiple story strands into 644 hard-to-put-down pages. I didn't think anyone could condense it into a movie - even one that's 158 minutes long.
Yet Zaillian ("Awakenings," "Schindler's List," "Moneyball") has done it with clarity and beauty, even tweaking Larsson's solution to the mystery into something both craftier and more elegant.
While an Oscar should certainly go to this script, "Girl" also deserves nominations for the flawless editing that deftly juggles a maze of characters and parallel plot points; for Jeff Cronenweth's somber, silvery cinematography; and for strong direction by the ever-reliable David Fincher ("Social Network," "The Game," "Zodiac").
And let's not forget a host of excellent performances, headlined by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as, respectively, a down-on-his-luck writer and a hard-nosed Goth girl whose lives come together as the tale's central mystery connects itself to a serial killer and a crooked investor.
Craig's tough persona differs substantially from the genial journalist in Larsson's novel; but Mara absolutely nails Lisbeth Salander - the stubbornness, the vulnerability, the fierce independence that makes her so compelling in spite of her bizarre hair, clothes and piercings.
In fact, Rooney gives this character an under-glow of softness and beauty that are barely perceptible in the novel; it's a performance that will catapult her to stardom.
Able support is provided by Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Steven Berkoff.
(Plummer, despite a 58-year career that includes more than 150 roles, has been nominated only once for an Oscar; between this and "Beginners," 2011 just might be his year.)
Also noteworthy is the film's careful handling of Larsson's explosive material, including rape, torture and graphic mutilation. It's plenty disturbing - but (as in the book) fairly discreet in what it actually shows. The more romantic sex scenes, however, were too graphic for my tastes.
My only other complaint is that Zaillian never ties the financier story-strand to sexual abuse of women, which is the novel's primary concern; this weakens the movie's overall unity, while also failing to account for Salander's go-for-the-throat pursuit of this corporate thug.
Yet the writing in that short final section is so clear and compelling that I actually understood it better than I did when reading the book - where it occupies 40 pages.
In several places - especially Plummer's final moment in a wheelchair - the movie actually packs more emotional punch than the novel.
And Zaillian has remained faithful to Larsson's uncompromising ending, which many movies would have prettied up; I was half disappointed he didn't, since I found the book's conclusion a letdown.
But Larsson's justifiably rabid fans won't have much to complain about.