If I were Rooney Mara, I’d be very excited for my career. In a single year, she’s gone from a small but memorable part as a jilted girlfriend in “The Social Network” and starring in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” to the coveted role of a cyber-punk hacker with deep emotional scars in David Fincher‘s American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” It would be a courageous leap for any actor, but Rooney Mara seems to have jumped without a safety net.
I confess I haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s novels, upon which this film is based; I tried the first one, which now it sits atop my ever-growing pile of maybe-I’ll-pick-it-up-again-some-day books. But I can only imagine how daunting Lisbeth Salander would have been for any actress. This is a haunted woman, her psychic wounds covered by piercings, leather, and a shock of jet-black hair. She walks with her shoulders hunched. When she speaks, her mouth barely moves. Her eyes rarely connect with others. We know almost nothing about her, except that she killed her father and became a ward of the state, and has gifted street smarts. When her benefactor rapes her after she requests an advance on her monthly check, Lisbeth responds with her own shocking act of violence, and just as quickly retreats back into herself. Now I understand what people mean when they talk about a riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. This is one of the year’s best performances any actor.
Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) understands personal turmoil, too: He’s just shelled out his last Kronor after paying a hefty fine for libeling a wealthy Swedish industrialist in a magazine article. Shamed and destitute, he travels to a private island owned by another billionaire, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), where he’s offered an obscene amount of money to solve a mystery: what happened to Vanger’s niece, Harriet, who disappeared into thin air some forty years earlier. Vanger is convinced she was murdered. But who did it? Certainly the Vanger family, all reclusive in their own way and living in isolated homes on the island, offer a litany of suspects, including Harriet’s brother, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård); the ancient matriarch, Isabella; and even Henrik, himself, who states quite plainly that no one is above suspicion. Vanger caters to Mikael’s journalistic ego: he’s a fine investigator and should consider the offer a challenge. Mikael accepts and dives into the mystery, but discovers that the tangled web of this dysfunctional dynasty is more than he can handle. He needs a research assistant.
Enter Lisbeth Salander–on a motorcycle, no less. Armed with a laptop, supreme intellect, and uncanny analytical skills, Lisbeth accelerates Mikael’s fact-finding mission that will lead them both down a dark alley of family secrets and horrors unimaginable in civilized society. There’s a scene of great intensity, as Mikael discovers exactly why the members of the Vanger family warned him to quit while he was ahead. And the resolution, when it happens, makes a startling amount of sense. This is a magnificent thriller, moved along by Fincher at a brisk pace, given the movie’s 158 minute run time. It never flags or wavers, and is always confident of where it’s going. To be certain, the film is unflinchingly dark and bleak — this is David Fincher we’re talking about — and deserves every bit of its R rating. And it bears the hallmarks of Fincher’s gifted visual style: the Swedish winter is suitably brutal and austere; he fills every frame with harsh light, shadows, and unending snowfall. But he also does something tricky this time by allowing his cinematic wizardry takes a back-seat to the story. There’s nothing overtly showy on display. I don’t think I’ve seen David Fincher this restrained since “Seven.”
But the anchor of the film is Lisbeth Salander, ever-present, tortured and antisocial. She’s allowed a few intimate moments with Mikael, offering a faint ray of hope that she might one day beat down her demons. As she puts it to a friend who has recently suffered a stroke: “I’ve made a friend; one I think you would like.” It’s a brief but heartbreaking scene that attempts to scrape the surface of a complicated character. She brings depth to a movie that might otherwise have been conventional without her.
Frankly, now that I think about it, if “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” weren’t such an accomplished thriller, I’d say it was underserving of Lisbeth Salander.