Review: A searing Rooney Mara saves the familiar 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) senses trouble in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Photo by Merrick Morton, © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) senses trouble in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first film in Columbia Pictures' three-picture adaptation of Stieg Larsson's literary blockbuster The Millennium Trilogy. Directed by ...

Rating: R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language

Length: 160 minutes

Released: December 21, 2011 Nationwide

Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgård

Director: David Fincher

Writer: Steven Zaillian

More info and showtimes »

The American big-screen take on the worldwide phenomenon of Swedish-novel-turned-film "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" can't help but have a sense of déjà vu.

It's not just because director David Fincher's film was predated by Stieg Larsson's popular crime novel and the Swedish film adaptation. There's a feeling of familiarity about much of the plot, which isn't all that groundbreaking in 2011, and even the aesthetics, which are pure Fincher. Sadly, sometimes being a distinctive filmmaker can backfire.

While Fincher fans will find much to appreciate, the film's main draw is the icy-hot performance by Rooney Mara as the title character. Mara appeared briefly yet pivotally in Fincher's "The Social Network," but for all intents and purposes she comes to "Dragon Tattoo" a blank slate. By the end of the film she has more than made her mark.

Reigning James Bond Daniel Craig stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a prominent Swedish journalist who has been found guilty of libel against a powerful businessman, Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). Facing heavy fines, Mikael accepts a generous commission from industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer).

Henrik summons Mikael to the north of Sweden, to the Vanger family's island compound, where he ostensibly is to work on a biography of Henrik. What Henrik really wants is for Mikael to solve a 40-year-old mystery that may include murder.

In the 1960s, Henrik's niece, Harriet, disappeared while surrounded by family. Before he dies, the aging patriarch wants to know what became of Harriet — and especially if one of his relatives killed her.

Many members of the Vanger clan live in separate houses on the island. Most are suspicious of Mikael, though Henrik's nephew, Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), Harriet's brother, seems to welcome him.

Realizing that he needs help, Mikael turns to Lisbeth Salander (Mara), an investigator of unique abilities. A wary, withdrawn, Goth-influenced young woman who generally takes the lone-wolf route, Lisbeth respects Mikael and agrees to work with him.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth, whose antisocial makeup at a young age put her under the yoke of the Swedish court system and has kept her — and her money — there, is dealing with a new social worker. Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) promises to deal strictly with her, but what soon becomes clear is that Bjurman cares nothing about Lisbeth's well-being or his official duties. He abuses his power horrifically.

It's fun to see tough-guy Craig playing an easygoing sort who often appears to be in over his head. The petite but tough Rooney gets to do the rescuing and the rough stuff, and she's totally believable. It's her show — Lisbeth calls the shots almost totally — and she's the one in whom viewers will invest.

Fincher gets fine performances from the entire cast, and he fills the screen with atmosphere and foreboding, but there's not enough meat left on this skeleton to make "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" succeed as much of a mystery. Where it works is in Mara's searing portrayal of Lisbeth's fitful journey toward connecting with others.

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