David Fincher's interpretation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" — the first in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy — is gorgeous, haunting, compelling and, for those of us who saw the Swedish version released in this country two years ago, redundant. The Hollywood adaptation would have greater impact if the Swedish film had not been so well-received. There is little variation in scenes, even down to the manner in which certain flashbacks are staged. Niels Arden Oplev managed to do with $13 million what Fincher did with $100 million. So Larsson's novel seeded a great Swedish movie. And now, it has seeded a great American movie.
The secretive character of Lisbeth Salander required an actress without loads of Hollywood baggage, and Rooney Mara is spectacular in the breakout role. She owns nearly every scene in which she appears — and not only because, half the time, she's flashing skin. The film is a 158-minute detective story, slowly unfurled against the draconian beauty of rural Sweden and intercut with flashy bits of sex, violence and chase. The result is a Hollywood thriller, stretched into an impressionistic blur.
As the film opens, Swedish investigative journalist Michael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has narrowly escaped prison after losing a libel case. Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of a fading industrial family, invites Blomkvist to live on his family's private island and take a shot at solving the 40-year-old murder of Harriet Vanger, his teen-age grandniece. Blomkvist retreats to a monastic cabin on the frozen, inaccessible island and busies himself unraveling a web of Old Testament lore, sexual perversion, misogyny and deep rooted anti-Semitism.
When Blomkvist asks for a research assistant, the misanthropic Lisbeth Salander joins him in the cabin. She's a 23-year-old waif and computer savant with antisocial tendencies and a photographic memory. Her violent retaliation against a childhood trauma led the state to claim her as a ward.
Salander already knows everything about Blomkvist, because she was hired by Vanger to perform his background check. In the process of illegally pilfering his hard-drive, she develops an understated obsession with the journalist. This bit of "girl moons over boy" convention lends Salander a displaced aura of sentimentality. Otherwise, she quickly becomes a graphic-novel-style heroine — fiercely loyal, adhering to her own moral code and displaying disconcerting physical strength when necessary.
While sequestered in the cabin, Salander pragmatically offers herself to Blomkvist. This initiates an Ayn Randian series of sexual encounters — lukewarm, bearing vaguely recognizable traces of emotion. She's in control, she's a bit cheeky, she's more into it than he is. In one instance, Blomkvist is so distracted that he tries to discuss work while Salander straddles him.
Sex in many (often unsavory) varieties supplies the psychological backbone of the film. In one scene, Salander is anally raped by her guardian. With heavy piercings, bleached eyebrows and spiky hair, she resembles a hip urban clothing model. She's a pixie punk, a projection rather than a reality, an easy object of lust.
There's an element of titillation, familiarity and voyeurism as she writhes, chained to a bed, while her underwear is ripped off and her bare ass flashed on-screen. It's a pornographic trope, a Hollywood depiction of an anti-Hollywood moment. The scene unleashes its full horror only after her paunchy, middle-aged guardian becomes an unavoidable part of the act. And there's nothing enticing or sexy afterward, as Salander limps home. Later, she offers her own version of restitution, echoing and even surpassing her rapist's brutality. But because the subject of the act is not a hot, twenty-something female, the scene lacks the conflict or gratuitousness of the one in which she is victim.
All of this sex weaves through an engaging storyline, couched in symbolic sets, darting edits and smooth cinematography. Photos zip across Salander's laptop, lightening quick and laser sharp, mirroring the workings of her fingers and her mind. And many scenes involving Harriet's brother, Martin Vanger, take place in his mid-century Swedish home — a marvel of economic luxury and clean lines, with interiors that radiate a warm orange or cool white. It's a metaphor for Martin himself — calculatedly showy, impenetrable and methodical.
More than the serial killer plot mystique, Lisbeth Salander and, to a lesser degree, Mikael Blomkvist propel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." By the end of the film, Salander is an incongruous character, switching her allegiance to the protection of women to the protection of one man. Maybe the certain sequels will contain surprises, even for those familiar with the Swedish films.