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On Movies: 'Dragon Tattoo' stars one riveting girl

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2011 - When I heard that David Fincher ("Seven," "Zodiac") was directing an English-language version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," I was dubious, although not about the talented Fincher's ability to tell dark and complex crime stories. I was wondering who he could possibly find who would be better in the title role than Noomi Rapace.

Rapace gave a riveting performance as the ornately tattooed computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander in the 2009 Swedish film version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Salander, a fascinating and easily visualized character as written, is the real star of the book. Physically she's almost snakelike, reptilian -- the echo of "salamander" in Salander's name seems intentional. At the same time, she's eerily attractive. Slender, clad all in black, her body strong yet flexible like a leaf spring, her hair spiked, her face studded with metal, she's simultaneously sexy and scary. She could be a character in a horror story. Actually, I guess she is - "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" certainly has its horrific moments, and Salander is in the middle of most of them, although by no means always as the victim.

In the Swedish film, which was a good one, Rapace seemed to crawl into the skin of Salander. In the electrifying new American version, Rooney Mara is not necessarily better than Rapace. But she's just as good. Like Rapace, she seems to become Salander. If there is a difference between the two performances, it may be that Mara's is a little more suggestive of the history of pain and abuse beneath the hunched-over protective stance that Salander uses to shield herself from the world. (Along with her fists and feet and in one memorable scene, a taser.) In any event, relative newcomer Mara (she played Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend in "The Social Network") seems an almost sure shot to be nominated for an Oscar.

The plot of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is complex, but at the core it's the story of a criminal investigation, like countless police procedurals and private eye mysteries.

An unjustly disgraced investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (a rumpled Daniel Craig, looking nothing like James Bond) is hired by the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family to find out what happened to his niece. Decades earlier, she vanished from the family's private island. The journalist moves into a small cabin on the island and, helped by Salander's wizardry with a computer, begins to uncover the family's past and a cast of characters that includes Nazis, neo-Nazis, corporate criminals, sadists and (perhaps) a serial killer.

Meanwhile, with Salander taking the initiative - she's an irresistible force - she and Mikael warm one another in the cold, snow-shrouded cabin on the island.

On a parallel track, we learn that Salander, presumed to be an orphan, is a ward of the state with a history of mental breakdowns who is being blackmailed by her court-appointed legal guardian into sexual submission. When her guardian's sexual demands escalate violently, she figures out a way to deal with the problem. The scenes of sexual brutality are horrifying, but relatively brief and hardly gratuitous, given the moral seriousness of the story being told. (The Swedish title of the book was "Men Who Hate Women.")

The running time of the American movie is more than two and a half hours, but it is so well constructed it seems shorter, moving quickly from discovery to discovery as Salander, in helmet and black leathers, speeds across Sweden on her motorcycle, and Mikael pursues the nasty secrets of the family on the island.

Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian ("Moneyball") have tightened the story by changing one important plot point from the book, but the change maintains the spirit of the original and may actually improve on it - the book, although a first-rate moral thriller, tended to be a tad long-winded.

Fincher, who also directed "The Social Network," has become one of our most interesting directors, and he is to be commended for the skill with which he assembles the important pieces of this complex two-pronged text and molds them into a compelling movie thriller. Like the original book, Fincher's film is charged with moral outrage as well as dramatic suspense. But it wouldn't be half as effective without Rooney Mara giving one of the finest performances of the year as the formidable Lisbeth Salander.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

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