“No one here really likes her,” says Dragan Armansky (Goran Višnjić), by way of introducing Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). On one hand, he’s warning a well-to-do client about the investigator on a case just completed for that client, and indeed, when she arrives at his sleek office, she’s vividly disconcerting, spiky-haired and pierced and surly. Her entrance tracked by a low, slow ambiguous panning shot — the sort of shot familiar to David Fincher fans — Lisbeth is right off both known and unknown, a cipher to be studied from a distance.
On another hand, however, Armansky is setting you up to like Lisbeth quite a bit, to appreciate her difference from the stuffy men with too much money who exploit her talents and don’t understand her. If he doesn’t bother to comprehend her rebelliousness within this crudely corporate, uncleverly political, effusively financial environment, she knows exactly who she’s dealing with. Brusque and brilliant, she’s smarter than everyone else in almost every room, with a photographic memory and an eerie intuition for circuits and passwords. All this makes her well suited to work as a professional hacker, breaking laws to pay rent and also stick it to someone, usually men wearing suits and expensive haircuts.
The reasons for Lisbeth’s defiance are soon clear enough in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even if you haven’t seen Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish film or read Stieg Larsson’s novel. She’s an abuse survivor, alternately furious and philosophical about it. While the details of that abuse remain murky (to be revealed in sequels and telegraphed in the novel’s original title, Men Who Hate Women), the consequences are at once deep and superficial, dire and sensational. As eye-catching as her punk-goth appearance may be, Lisbeth has also developed a serious penchant for violence, which she orchestrates in ways both ingenious and deliberate.
Like the previous versions of Lisbeth’s story, Fincher and writer Steve Zaillian’s provides a dramatic illustration of her well-earned darkness in her relationship with her puffy-faced legal guardian, Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). Deemed incompetent to look after her own affairs (a story explained in another installment), Lisbeth must pay regular visits to this monstrous fellow in order to gain access to her own money; as he forces her to fellate him, the camera looks away, sort of discretely, in order to pay off later: following a dreadful assault in his bedroom (his fat belly, her screams of outrage), Lisbeth returns with an elaborate vengeance, including anal rape and forceful tattooing.
As Lisbeth looms over her abuser, cool and fierce, she’s simultaneously frightening and titillating, and in this image you might guess how she was appealing to Fincher, whose films have so assiduously explored the complex interrelations of desire and pain. If Zodiac was the most perfect and perverse realization of this combination (a quest without end, only more desire and more pain), this film is the most cursory and least surprising: Lisbeth’s obvious emotional and moral mechanisms mirror and even replicate her adversaries’ offenses rather than interrogate them.
A logical if extreme product of her abuse, Lisbeth is both powerful and vulnerable, which makes her appealing to her partner in this film’s quest plot, the crusading Stockholm-based financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). As he emerges from court during the first minute of the film, his career derailed by made-up libel charges, Mikael is in need of a new project. It so happens that he’s the subject of the investigation Lisbeth has completed at film’s start, as well as her newest employer. This when he accepts an unusual assignment from corporate mogul Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who wants him to discover what happened to a favorite niece, Harriet, missing since 1966. The mystery Vanger describes is premised on his own family’s monumental dysfunctions. Rich and insular and entitled, they live on an island that serves as sanctuary and confinement, particularly, it’s soon obvious, for the girls in the clan.
As pleasant and earnest as Henrik appears, everyone else Mikael meets — including Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgard) and sister Anita (Joely Richardson), removed to a chilly executive office in London — is damaged, aggrieved and/or passive-aggressive. Each is a possible suspect or witness in the niece’s disappearance, which, Mikael’s research indicates, has to do with an especially terrible and familiar legacy. That is, Harriet’s father Harald (Henrik’s brother) is a lifelong Nazi. What sorts of torture Harald inflicted on Harriet, or whether his politics and associates were factors in her disappearance, becomes the focus of Lisbeth and Mikael’s investigation.
Old, wealthy Nazis make easy targets for righteous, if imperfect, truth-seekers (for a cleverer recent rendition, see: Inside Man, also featuring Plummer, who’s of an age where he can embody “history”; for a sillier one, see: The Debt). The Nazi opponent makes heroes’ foibles pretty much irrelevant: Mikael is both idealistic as a journalist and messy as a man: he’s got a wife and a married girlfriend, who works with him at the magazine, and he takes up with Lisbeth too. His problems make his mistakes in the case seem both understandable (results of his congenital blindness and self-deception as a man, perhaps) and also annoying.
Lisbeth is disturbing in other ways. Angry and brutal and scary and also justified, no matter what crimes she commits, she doesn’t explain herself, but still, the film overexplains her, her motivations and her needs. When she asks Mikael for permission to consummate their mission — “Can I kill him?” — the question underscores all kinds of problems, in the mission, in their relationship, and especially in her role as worker, woman-child, and ward (of the state). A twisty mess of reactions — of desire and pain not her own — Lisbeth remains a mystery and an object, cunning and effective, but prosaic too.