‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’: Rooney Mara takes ownership of Lisbeth Salander, darkly

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. (Columbia Tristar Marketing.)
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Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was probably not born with an antisocial personality; she has cultivated one in order to survive.

Her piercings, tattoos, Mohawk, and fierce stride are used expressly to intimidate and to announce to any room she enters, I may be a scrawny young woman, but do not mess with me.

She has the benefit of being provided with an allowance by Sweden's social services (having been declared "mentally incompetent" at the age of 12), but in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, her financial aid is more of a curse than a blessing.  It has put her in a state of constant subservience.

Lisbeth uses her formidable hacking skills to get work as a researcher for firms looking to dig up dirt on individuals.  She is quietly voracious at the computer, like an instinctive predator, chain-smoking, downing Coke and McDonald's french fries.  

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As played by Rooney Mara, in David Fincher's film adaptation of Steig Larsson's runaway hit novel (the first of the trilogy), Lisbeth Salander is a riveting presence: unsmiling, rude and blunt, yet also twitching with vulnerability.  The odd sparks of humor that come over her face are like a flickering Morse Code message from the woman she could have been if life had been kinder to her.  

This is not an easy feat for an actress: The part requires Mara to be an avenging Ninja, the smartest person in any room, a wounded child, a trapped and frightened animal and a sexual dynamo.  It's a bit of fanboy's fantasy, but Rooney Mara pulls it off: It is impossible to look away from her.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, written deftly and concisely by Steven Zaillian, takes a long time (too long) to get to the guts of the story. It opens with a stunner of a music video to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," as reimagined by Karen O, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with frenetic black and silver images of black ink pouring onto a keyboard, snapping black cords, and dragons bursting into flames.  It is an onslaught of sound and imagery—overwhelming, artful, and intimidating.  

The movie then begins with the swift downfall of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), and the plot kicks into creaky motion, never to let up until the end, but that opener haunts the first hour of the film, reminding us of where Dragon Tattoo wants to go, if it didn't have to deal with all that boring stuff in the beginning.

But to say that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is complex is an understatement, and the story requires a lot of exposition to keep the plot comprehensible to the audience (assuming they haven't read the original novel).  There are times when the film feels like a souped-up "Criminal Minds" episode, complete with serial killers, graphic brutality against women and crazed psychopaths with elaborate torture chambers in their basement, not to mention Nazi leanings.  

But before we get to any of that, or to the chilly, severe presence of Lisbeth Salander, we have to learn about the trials and tribulations of Blomkvist, who is sued for libel, and is thus ruined financially.  The high-end magazine he works for, Millennium, run by his sometime-lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright), has also been ruined, and may have to close up shop.  

Blomkvist receives a call from a Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a member of a wealthy Swedish family that made its fortune in railroads.  Henrik Vanger ostensibly wants Blomkvist to write his biography, but actually has hired him to look into an unsolved family mystery.  Years before, Vanger's teenage niece Harriet disappeared from the family home, never to be heard of again.  Blomkvist, desperate for work, accepts the offer to be a researcher and is given a cottage on the isolated Vanger family island.  

The Vangers are a weird bunch.  Most seem to be recluses.  Nobody talks to one another, although all of their houses are clustered within view of each other.  The only sociable one is Martin, played with oozing affability by Stellan Skarsgård.

The first hour of the film is top-loaded and bogged down with all of these intersecting plot-lines, essentially a prologue, complete with a groaning family tree, and Daniel Craig, as Blomkvist, does not come off particularly well.  (He's fine, he does what the script calls on him to do, squinting at old photographs and staring intently at his evidence, but compared to the psychological onslaught that is Rooney Mara every time she enters the picture, he's just a cipher.) But once the gloves come off in the final third of the film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo jumpstarts itself to become the thriller that it wanted to be all along.

Because it's directed by David Fincher, who is such a master at creating a mood of existential doom (see Se7en and Zodiac), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looks incredible.  All color has been bled out of the palette.  The landscape is grey and white, the snow falling in horizontal lines across the stark grey landscape, the shadows are thick and dark, and the sound of the howling wind seems to seep into the bleak color scheme of the film.  

Martin Vanger's house on the hill is filled with seemingly warm lamplight, but the furnishings are spare and modern, with little to no personal stamp on the decor.  Real life may be lived in this world, human and pulsing, but it is nowhere in evidence in Fincher's universe.  When Lisbeth puts on a blonde wig, red lipstick, and a pink suit near the end of the film, it is as startling an image as Dorothy leaving her black-and-white house to enter the Technicolor Oz.

Lisbeth Salander's story is told in conjunction with Blomkvist's (and, of course, their paths eventually cross).  Her laptop is stolen in the subway station and she races after the thief, giving him a satisfying beat-down on the escalator.  Her perverted daddy-figure of a social worker (played by Yorick van Wageningen) makes Lisbeth pay for extra cash first with a blowjob and then a horrifying rape, filmed in excruciating detail, the closeups of her screaming face more brutal than any of the graphic images of that scene.  Even more haunting is the image of her squatting in the bathtub following the rape, with blood running down her legs and down the drain.

 Then she becomes an avenging angel.  It may be emotionally satisfying to see her turn the tables on her social worker in a scene that will instantly become notorious, but it leaves her pretty much where she started.  There is no victory for her in it, or at least not a lasting one.  

Lisbeth and Blomkvist join forces, and the dynamic is fun to watch, amid the despicable, disgusting characters that surround them.  At one point, Lisbeth starts searching on Blomkvist's laptop for something, and Blomkvist warns, "My notes are encrypted," and she shoots him a quick look to tell him just how little she thinks of his "encryption," which is very funny and is indicative of the wide range of emotions and responses that Mara has at her fingertips.

The plot is clearly the thing here, and everyone has a lot of explaining to do.  Up until almost the final moment, various characters are given long monologues explaining themselves, similar to the final confessions in an Agatha Christie novel, or, again, in the last 10 minutes of any Criminal Minds episode, when the serial killer explains to the F.B.I. how he got away with it for so long.

Christopher Plummer is terrific as always as Henrik Vanger, and he has an emotional outburst near the end that is almost worth the price of admission.  Robin Wright is a welcome presence, delivering a characteristically earthy and truthful performance.  Joely Richardson is quietly heartbreaking as Anita Vanger, a woman who has fled her own family as though it were a prison camp.  And Daniel Craig, who has been superb in the past (his Ted Hughes in 2003's Sylvia is damn near a masterpiece), is serviceable.

But this is Rooney Mara's show from beginning to end.