Jonathan Short, Associated Press
Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig arrive for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo premiere, at a central London venue, Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.

"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" — ★★★ — Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skaarsgard, Robin Wright; R (vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, rape, violence, gore, adult themes); in general release

Director David Fincher's deluxe edition of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the most coldly compelling version yet of the tale dreamed up by the late Stieg Larsson, whose "Millennium" trilogy of pulp novels remains the time-killer of choice in airports, elevated trains and, when the weather's right, beaches around the world.

Every composition, musical note, furtive glance and glint of metal serves a story purpose or adds another chilly textural detail. As with Fincher's "Se7en" and "Zodiac," we're in the land of rampant psychopathology in a world nearly beyond saving. This was the atmosphere of "The Social Network," Fincher's previous film, as well. Except that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was only making a killing, not actually killing.

Larsson's novels have already been filmed, in Swedish, in three separate features. Fincher's English-language production, starring Daniel Craig as investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as ace researcher Lisbeth Salander, was shot in many of the same forbidding Swedish locales used in the earlier films. With Fincher behind the camera, the imagery is as crisp and fastidious as it gets.

If there's something missing from this project, scheduled to be the first in a three-film juggernaut, it's actually a pretty big thing: a reason for being. I confess to having had enough of this story, these characters, this peculiarly popular narrative blend of sexual violence and serial slaughter. Around the time of "Zodiac" (2007) Fincher spoke to various interviewers about that story's real-life subject and his interest in filming a mystery with no satisfying conclusion, and as few audience-baiting impulses as possible. He said also that after "Zodiac" (a financial disappointment worldwide) no one needed to make another serial killer movie. Ever.

Unless there's a big pile of money in it, that is. In book and film form, "Dragon Tattoo" speaks a universal language: sick thrills from a moral high-ground position.

"Dragon Tattoo" knows precisely how to achieve its look, rhythm, sound and spirit. It's extremely well made by a genuine and reliable talent. But I thought he was done with this sort of thing. Oh, well. If you needed another version of Larsson's proven combination of prurience and payoff, here you go.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is rated R for vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, rape, violence; running time: 152 minutes.