updated 12/20/2011 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 12/21/2011 AT 8:30 AM ET
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about power – who has it and who doesn’t, but mainly how quickly it shifts.
Take a scene in the film’s first hour: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is on a subway platform bothering no one when a foolish stranger snatches her backpack. Soon, she’s capably retrieved her pack – and beaten the thief so savagely that passersby see her as the heinous one. In an instant she’s gone from victim to victor to victimizer. And she’s just getting started.
What may be most shocking about director David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller is that it’s shocking at all. After all, the book had such broad appeal that for at least a year you couldn’t get on a plane, train or bus without seeing it clutched in someone’s hands.
Many of us know precisely what happens in this tale of two mysteries, one about a girl who disappeared 40 years ago from her wealthy Swedish clan, the other about the curiosity known as Lisbeth, the book’s heroine. But Fincher is determined to give even the most ardent fans of the books a few jolts.
The plot hews closely to Larsson’s. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) takes a job ostensibly writing the biography of esteemed entrepreneur Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). His real assignment, though, is to find out what happened to Vanger’s niece Harriet 40 years earlier, when she disappeared one afternoon from her family’s estate. To assist in the sleuthing, Mikael hires Lisbeth, a canny hacker with piercings, tats and a haircut as severe as her social handicaps.
If the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance isn’t nearly as interesting as Lisbeth herself, blame Mara. The fresh-faced girl who so skillfully dismantled Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network is completely transformed in Dragon Tattoo. She’s managed to become a physical contradiction: bold but trying to hide, introverted but ferociously aggressive. She’s a pixie with a mean punch, and her performance could be enough to nab her an Oscar nomination.
Her co-stars are no slouches, either, with Craig playing it cool as Blomkvist and Plummer both wily and heartbroken as Henrik, continuing to remind us why he’s such a delight onscreen (if you didn’t see him in Beginners earlier this year, get the DVD).
But no discussion of this film can shy away from its brutality. With a slamming score from the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross backing up the drama, unwatchable things happen, primarily to Lisbeth, then fittingly (still, grotesquely) to others. If we’re to understand Lisbeth, though, it’s necessary evil. The horrible circumstances of her life mean that she’s constantly forced to be someone’s predator or prey, sometimes at the same time.
The satisfaction of Dragon Tattoo is watching Lisbeth realize that she, too, has power. The fun of the next two films completing the trilogy will be seeing her wield it.