Slow but creepy, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo lets Rooney Mara steal more than pass-codes 

Skin Crawl

Skin Crawl

Though the industry fracas over David Denby's embargo-breaking New Yorker review and the theater-scanning guards at a recent press screening seemed to suggest otherwise, the contents of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are hardly a secret. But even if Stieg Larsson's global literary phenomenon, The Millennium Trilogy, and the three Swedish film adaptations that followed have all but stolen David Fincher's narrative thunder, his reincarnation still arrives with plenty of sound and fury. And at its best, it is gripping filmmaking.

If by some small miracle you've not heard the gist of it, you may still find it familiar. The film's main plotline is a mystery akin to television procedurals of the Law and Order: SVU variety: Muckraking journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), disgraced after his most recent target turned the tables, is hired by an aging corporate tycoon (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old case of the man's missing niece. The search leads him through the tycoon's deeply depraved family on the trail of a serial sex killer — violence against women being Larsson's shorthand for the abuses of the elite upon the lower castes. Inevitably, there are biblical connections, fading photographs hiding heretofore-unseen clues, and various other CSI-ish trappings.

Strictly speaking, Craig plays the film's protagonist. But as the title suggests, the real star here, and the primary reason the film rises above its more common underpinnings, is the girl with the aforementioned ink. As did Noomi Rapace in the original films, Rooney Mara inhabits the film's mesmerizing antihero, Lisbeth Salander, and commands the screen with sullen ferocity. Mara was most recently seen in Fincher's last film, The Social Network, at the receiving end of Mark Zuckerberg's arrogance. Brilliant as Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg was, he should be grateful it wasn't Mara's Salander he was humiliating.

A goth-punk hacker with corporate espionage skills to spare, Salander is an enigmatic savant whose search-engine fu is as advanced as her emotions are stunted. Her Nordic, pale-skin-and-bones appearance ("I have a high metabolism," she says) accentuates her jagged jet-black hair, multiple piercings and now-famous tattoo. A white Mac and red can of Coke practically scream from the gray monotony of her apartment-as-lair.

Living as a ward of the state, she is at the mercy of a detestable legal guardian who demands sexual favors in return for grocery money. His violations quickly progress, culminating in a horrifying rape the film does not spare us from viewing. (Along with overwhelming sickness, the scene provoked a thought: Sexual violence still affects us in ways other forms of violence on screen rarely do, perhaps because of the infliction-of-power dynamic that fuels Salander's rage, and Larsson's. However grisly, a scene showing a similar degree of war violence would surely not produce such knee-jerk repulsion.)

At this point, though, Salander turns from victim to predator. Her brutal revenge balances the scales in an equally horrifying, albeit arguably justifiable way (although Fincher plays the scene for more ambiguous effect than the fist-pumping payback in the Swedish version). If Angelina Jolie was once the foremost armed-and-dangerous woman in American movies, Mara here makes her look like a ditzy beauty queen by comparison.

The two plotlines intersect when Blomkvist seeks Salander's help with the investigation. He learns of her skills by looking into her last bit of sleuthing, the report she filed on him at the behest of the man he is now accused of libeling. The devastating blank stare she gives him when he tells her he's hunting a killer of women is one you'll be seeing when you close your eyes. The two exhibit a definite chemistry, but they are not equals. The film is Mara's and the story Salander's. When the two protagonists' unavoidable sexual encounter arrives, I needn't tell you who makes the first move.

Together, the two usher in the film's long, somewhat tedious second act, a morass of exposition that shows the strain of screenwriter Steven Zaillian trying to please the book's exacting fans. While the step-by-step storyline can't be pinned on Fincher — who has made art of unfolding mysteries before, in films such as Zodiac and Seven — this film could stand to be trimmed of some procedure. Thankfully, the mystery's end gives way to a Mara-led third act that more closely resembles the fast-paced, sharply edited thriller promised by the film's rock-montage trailer.

Fincher's real triumph is that he leaves one looking forward to yet another version of the next two installments. Aided by repeat collaborations with Jeff Cronenweth, whose cinematography evokes a gray, haunted Sweden, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose atmospheric plinked-piano score only deepens the icy chill, he creates an unsettling world to which we troublingly wish to return. It is not unlike Mara's incisive glare — as disturbing as it is magnetic.



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