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MOVIE REVIEW

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

‘Dragon Tattoo’ finds light in the darkness

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 20, 2011
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Laughter probably ranks toward the bottom of responses to David Fincher’s thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’’ The movie, adapted from the first book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, teems with murder, rape, and graphic descriptions of all kinds of awfulness, and its Swedish heroine, a goth-punk-computer genius named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), endures more assaults than is right. But there’s terrific comedy in the way she interacts with both her allies and assailants. Despite what she’s been through (most of which might have killed a normal person), Lisbeth still manages to muster hilarious exasperation over the little things, like watching someone use a laptop. All that fumbling and inefficiency is almost as painful to her as everything else she’s had to put up with, and the comedy in that moment is human. She has so much taken from her but not her snobbery. Not her sense of decorum, either. “May I kill him?’’ she asks before chasing down one monster.

I don’t think I’ve seen an actor do more with deadpan expressions than Mara does in this movie. Her face doesn’t move but, whether she’s tasing a man or standing in front of a mirror watching a cigarette dangle from her mouth, we respond to her. Mara’s an American who’s best known for playing verbal tennis with Jesse Eisenberg in the opening scene of Fincher’s “The Social Network.’’ The sports are different in “Dragon Tattoo’’ - a lot of chess, a lot of track, a lot of boxing, some sex.

Lisbeth has styled herself to look like a corpse, but somehow Mara pushes a little light through the character’s dour darkness. Lisbeth’s face is pierced. So is one of her nipples. The dragon tattoo of the title wends its way along the left side of her back. There’s a wasp on her neck. Her hair can be sculpted as a mohawk. It’s also worn in a way that, with her drop-crotch Army-style pants (Trish Summerville did the costumes), makes her look like she’s starring in a paramilitary Nine Inch Nails production of “Les Miz.’’ As kismet would have it, Atticus Ross composed the drilling, sawing, pulsing horror-film score with Trent Reznor, Mr. Nine Inch Nails himself. Who else would understand the black music in this woman’s heart?

Lisbeth’s exterior is meant to speak for her: She’s a doll of danger. But when Mara speaks, in a low Slavic-sounding monotone, there’s an authority then, too (and more knowing comedy). She’s both as clammy as Isabelle Huppert, who’s the queen of this sort of play-dead acting, and very different from Noomi Rapace, who played this part to alarming perfection in three increasingly desperate Swedish films. Rapace gave herself over to Lisbeth’s psychosis until what she achieved really went beyond acting. You don’t whip your way through Larsson’s books and think, “Wow, the character’s got a soul.’’ But Rapace gave the character a snarling one. Mara is no less committed, but Fincher pushes her to have more fun with Larsson’s ludicrous, albeit entertaining handle on Lisbeth’s ideas of vengeance, feminism, and sex. With Mara, you know what Lisbeth is feeling, and after a few scenes you admire her determination to keep going, even if, alas, she makes no psychological sense at all.

The woman Larsson conceived was both a feminist fantasy and a male fantasy. Occasionally, she was both fantasies at once. Larsson’s language reveled in the awfulness of the many assaults against her, then luxuriated in the triumphantly grisly revenge she took. Fincher’s movie doesn’t try to have it both ways, as the original Swedish films tried to. One pivotal assault doesn’t begin until a door is pushed shut. We’re forced to watch what happens on the other side, but the closing is a signal that we’re not meant to witness what we see.

Fincher’s been down these dark alleys so many times that there has to be something about the undertaking that feels new for him. Lisbeth and her Swedish environs are it. He and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, draw enough humor from Lisbeth’s abruptness and sense of propriety to turn the movie into a kind of comedy of manners that Larsson’s book was too righteously trashy to bear down on. Fincher’s movie disinfects the luridness. The film unfolds in the same skin-pimpling forensic climes as his other movies about freaks and killers, namely “Se7en’’ and “Zodiac.’’ The new movie, however, is essentially two films in search of union. Working with the editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall and the cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher’s challenge is to gradually find a rhythm between the halves that doesn’t change after the two come together.

One side of the movie belongs to Lisbeth, the other to the superjournalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), whose latest exposé of corporate evil has been declared libelous. Disgraced, broke, and outfitted with an array of enviable knitwear, he accepts the sleuthing job offered by a smooth old industrialist (Christopher Plummer) who’d like a solution to the 40-year-old mystery of his murdered niece. The list of suspects, Blomkvist is told, almost certainly includes a few of the old man’s relatives, fascists and Nazis still living in hilarious proximity to his baronial manse. Obviously, the closer Blomkvist gets to the truth the closer he gets to becoming a victim himself.

Narratively, the high point of the investigation is its expansion to include Lisbeth, who was hired to perform a background check on Blomkvist for the industrialist. These two are like the oddball detectives in any procedural - Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in “Se7en,’’ say - but they become partners with benefits. Like most of the relationships in the book, the sexual aspect of that one is overdone. What feels like a power play for Lisbeth - who’s a practicing lesbian until Blomkvist barges into her apartment - turns into something that merely serves as a plot point. His seduction of her is right-on. “I want you to help me catch a killer of women,’’ he says, and Mara’s face finds yet another way to say something with nothing.

Still, as Lisbeth falls for her partner, who is still sleeping with his married editor (Robin Wright), you can imagine Sony Pictures standing first over Zaillian then Fincher, praying they find a way to make Blomkvist and Lisbeth palatable to audiences (they don’t seem to mind a comical deviation from the book’s finale). The studio wants a franchise, and they don’t want to risk losing one by trapping us with a psychopath and a self-righteous cad. They’ve given us a mysterious stranger in Mara and, in Craig, a star whose cockiness and sexuality, as James Bond, we’re used to. But television in the last 15 years, on shows like “24,’’ Curb Your Enthusiasm,’’ “The Sopranos,’’ and “Dexter,’’ has acclimated us to moral murk, the graying of principle, and obnoxious or uncompromising characters. We don’t need Lisbeth to be likable. We need her to be interesting. We can get weak, needy, sane characters in any movie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of the cinematographer. It is Jeff Cronenweth.

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THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Directed by: David Fincher

Adapted by: Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson

Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgaard, Joely Richardson, and Christopher Plummer

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 152 minutes

Rated: R (brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language)

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