THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO “Just hold still. This will all be over in three hours.”

LIKE MOST MYSTERIES, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is less about story and more about the grinding mechanics of plot: exposition, process, exposition, process. Dragon Tattoo isn't just any mystery, though: Based on the first book in Stieg Larsson's wildly popular trilogy (which already spawned three Swedish film adaptations), this Dragon Tattoo is the latest from David Fincher, and arrives on the heels of his last awards-season effort, The Social Network.

Those expecting anything on par with Fincher's best work—The Social Network, Zodiac, Fight Club—should probably lower their expectations closer to Benjamin Button levels. Fincher can be one of our best directors, but he's also one of the least reliable. With Dragon Tattoo, he's made a film that befits its airport paperback origins—if, you know, they showed movies with brutal rape scenes on airplanes.

That's not to say it's bad: Fincher's Dragon Tattoo is an exceedingly competent thriller, and, as is the tendency of mysteries worth a damn, it features at least one detective who's far more interesting than all that exposition and process. That detective is gothy hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, kicking ass), who teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to investigate a decades-old death in a super rich, super creepy Swedish family. There are lots of shots of Mara typing, and Craig urgently taking off his glasses, and both of them intently scanning through paperwork and computer files; there is also a lot of snow, suspicion, Swedes who all kind of seem the same, and the aforementioned brutal rape.

As far as material goes, Dragon Tattoo never grows much beyond a TV procedural: Law & Order: Swedish Victims Unit. Sometimes it's creepy, sometimes it's silly, sometimes it's exploitative, and frequently it's overlong and weirdly bland. There are a couple points, though, where Fincher connects with the material: the beautiful, eerie opening credits, set to a bone-rattling cover of "Immigrant Song" by Karen O and Trent Reznor; a nervous cat-and-mouse skulk through an Ikea-y house; more than a few moments where Lisbeth takes center stage; and a pretty inspired deployment of an Enya number. And most notably, the film's affecting coda, which focuses not on misogyny or old newspapers, but on the prickly, dangerous Lisbeth, who here reaches out in a way she never has. It's a striking sequence, and it caps off the film as well as possible—for a few moments, Lisbeth shines out from beneath the shadow of this goofy mystery, and it's a hell of a thing.