Don't turn away

Before his untimely death, Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist, wrote what came to be known as the Millennium Trilogy. The series, set in Sweden, became a cultural phenomenon, combining the thriller-mystery genre with a fascinating exploration of a brilliant computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, a waifish young woman who possesses a photographic memory and a deep well of courage.

The recently released film, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is a striking adaptation of the first novel wherein Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is introduced. On the surface, she's painfully asocial and all goth: tattoos, piercings, her hair raven-wing black, her dark eyes challenging.

Lisbeth's backstory, outlined ever so briefly in the film, has been a series of familial tragedies and professional failures by those who should have cared for her and didn't. The result is an isolated woman who is profoundly mistrustful of all authority, emotionally inaccessible, a stunningly quick study, with a strain of individuality that is iron.

For reasons that are gradually revealed, she has a state guardian who, at the direction of the court, oversees her life and her finances. He is also massively corrupt, a predator that uses his position to bend Lisbeth's will to his own, and their scenes together comprise some of the most harrowing of the film.

Ashland High School graduate David Fincher directs this American version of "Dragon Tattoo" — the trilogy was originally made for Swedish television and debuted in theaters here last year. Fincher, who made "Se7en" and "Zodiac," gravitates to the darkest corners of the human psyche in ways that are both disturbing and involving.

Salander is the perfect vehicle for Fincher, as he plumbs a complex, multi-layered murder mystery, requiring from Salander a trifecta of intensity and focus and skill. It's hard to think of a contemporary female character in literature or film that is as captivating and interesting as is Lisbeth.

Filmed in Northern Sweden — much of it shot in winter, the light slanted, the landscape stark — "Dragon Tattoo" involves a seasoned investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), hired by an aging industrialist, Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer), to find the murderer of his 16-year-old niece. It's a cold case, a case that at first blush seems obscure and elusive. The police tried. Yet, when Lisbeth is recruited (she's a freelance researcher for a security company) by Blomkvist, the puzzle comes together, hinting at not just one murder but multiple murders of women, all brutally killed and mutilated.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Steve Zallian. And the acting ensemble is top drawer. Of course, the challenge was casting Salander. Mara, a slip of a woman, mirrors Lisbeth, and she delivers a powerful performance, conveying with her silence and anger and simmering rebellion a vulnerability that is ever present.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" possesses an unrelenting intensity. It is enigmatic, even grim, akin to Fincher's "Se7en" in tone; there are moments when it is tempting to turn away. Try not to.

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