Tyler Durden. Jules Winfield. Travis Bickle. Each has a seat at the table of cinema’s most iconic, dark, violent movie characters.

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo easily earns punk-goth Lisbeth Salander a place, too. And Rooney Mara (The Social Network) more than does the part justice. Playing Salander as an almost meek (well… until that scene, anyway) hacker/investigator, she offers a sharp contrast to the character created by the equally-great Noomi Rapace in the 2009 Swedish version.

Hired to help solve the mystery of a young girl’s death 40 years prior, Salander arrives on the scene with a jet black mohawk, multiple tattoos and piercings, and more baggage than a Louis Vuitton factory. She also has street smarts to spare, a photographic memory, and a fierce desire to see her job through to the end.

But unlike Rapace, Mara gives us a Salander who prefers to walk quickly with her head down, who avoids conflict (unless fighting back is necessary), and who is happy (without smiling) to just stay in the shadows.

It works, and her performance almost single-handedly keeps this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo afloat.

While screenwriter Steven Zaillian does change several key plot points (most notably at the end), the general story is, of course, the same. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by wealthy patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to figure out what happened to his grand-niece Harriet. In the tradition of the Agatha Christie locked-room mystery, Blomkvist learns that a member of the super-dysfunctional Vanger clan must have committed the crime, so he sets to work unraveling the clues.

At the same time, Salander is dealing with her own demons (both mental and physical), before eventually getting hired by Blomkvist to help him with the Vanger mystery.

Fincher does a phenomenal job creating a creepy, almost terrifying atmosphere, where the stark Swedish winter becomes its own character, along with the haunting, electronic score by last year’s Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Zaillian’s screenplay can’t quite balance the fine line between brisk pace and inclusion of almost every significant plot point from the novel, but by and large it works, helped significantly by the performances of the actors.

Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard (as Harriet’s brother Martin) are brilliant as the heads of the Vanger clan, and Craig brings a quiet determination to his role, despite being mildly miscast; he’s just a little too chiseled and confident for Blomkvist.

This is Mara’s show from start to finish, however, and her fierce intensity will stick with you longer than that dragon tattoo on her back.

4.5/5 stars