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Rooney Mara delivers white phosphorous performance in 'Dragon Tattoo'

Posted: December 22, 2011 - 1:00am

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” opens with a howling-banshee cover of “The Immigrant Song” by Karen O and Trent Reznor, amping up the Led Zeppelin classic to new heights of energy and angst. That remix is the ideal emblem for David Fincher’s wintry, brutal remake of the 2009 Swedish cult sensation. Fincher pushes the tale of serial killing to the blackest depths of noir depravity.

The late Steig Larsson’s bestseller is an epic whodunit whose heroine is only slightly less insane than the chief villain. In Lisbeth Salander, Larsson created one of the most indelible sleuths in popular literature, a goth street punk, Einstein-level computer hacker, and psychologically scarred survivor of child abuse.

He plugged her into a routine police procedural tale and fried every circuit in the story as Lisbeth’s dark energy overwhelmed the standard detective-yarn template. Fans of the book may not recall every wrinkle of the plot, but they can never forget the ferocious, emotionally frozen heroine.

Fincher raised eyebrows when he cast American actress Rooney Mara in the lead. Her biggest previous credit was playing Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend in “The Social Network,” and imagining her as a vengeful Valkyrie was quite a stretch. But his decision was nothing less than a coup. Mara dominates every scene, delivering the kind of white-phosphorous performance that Heath Ledger brought to the Joker.

Fincher has delved into dark-hearted subjects before: sociopathy (“Seven”), sadomasochism (“Fight Club”), child endangerment (“Panic Room”) and obsession (“Zodiac”). “Girl” allows him to tie up all his interests in one pervy package.

As Lisbeth and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist research the 40-year-old disappearance of an industrialist’s grand-niece, we realize that Swedish decorum is as thin as the veneer on an Ikea bookcase. The renowned social-welfare system breeds monsters, declaring Lisbeth incompetent to handle her own affairs and assigning her to a guardian who’s also a sexual predator.

The court system exists to whitewash the influential, and history itself has been rewritten to expunge unpleasant memories of Swedish Nazi sympathizers during World War II. Getting to the bottom of the corruption here is like peeling an onion. It never ends.

The process of fact-finding and deduction is thrillingly visualized.

Salander and Blomkvist create a matrix of historical photographs from the time of the girl’s disappearance in the 1960s. As the visual jigsaw begins to yield important clues, we’re right there at their shoulders, urging them on. Over the rocky course of their partnership, Salander and Blomkvist begin to warm to one another, an unlikely thaw that gives the story a new twist of emotional tension. “Who’s the killer?” and “Will they or won’t they?” become equally compelling questions.

Daniel Craig is utterly persuasive as Blomkvist, a clever man but no action hero. His flinching shock when he stumbles across a grisly sight is so quick and unexpected that we jump in our chairs even before we’re shown what he has seen. His attraction to the uncanny Lisbeth, who mounts him repeatedly and graphically, is believable, and so is his hesitation at becoming deeply involved with an emotionally volatile 23-year-old genius who can hack into all his computers.

As usual in a Fincher production, every frame is composed with care befitting a Faberge egg. He uses space thrillingly, making an open-plan modern house with glass walls into a foreboding maze, and turning pleasant Swedish streets into floodgates of menace. The last scene, nearly wordless, is one of the great heartbreakers of modern film.

With this film, Fincher has made his first love story. It’s a killer.

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