The moment I heard that David Fincher, the director of the upcoming American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (scheduled release date: December 2011), had settled on his choice for an unknown actress to play Lisbeth Salander, the morosely punked-out cyber-genius/abuse victim/delinquent/ investigator/smashmouth heroine, I eagerly looked up her credits to see if I could remember her in any previous roles. I couldn’t. Her name was certainly promising: Rooney Mara (that’s her, above left) sounds exotic, vaguely foreign, and a little sinister, like Mata Hari with attitude. And she’s striking-looking, with an old-fashioned small-boned, sculptured-ivory elegance, and big blue eyes that seem to take in everything. I had seen most of Mara’s prominent films, like Youth in Revolt and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but when it turned out that I had no recollection of her performances in any of those relatively minor roles, I was glad. I think that Fincher did the right thing, and in fact made a very bold and ingenious move, by choosing a relative unknown. It gave me a tingle of anticipation that I had no idea who she was.
That’s because Lisbeth Salander, even when you do get to know her, has a certain distant, mysterious, and forbidding punk-ghost quality. She never ingratiates, the way that a conventional movie star does. She’s sneaky and remote and a touch sociopathic, slinking in the shadows of her torment — a self-styled cipher-avenger. In a certain sense, the actress who plays her has to vanish emotionally, to dial down her expressiveness to a barely visible simmer, and to make that slight stuntedness itself expressive. A name star like Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson would have had a harder time doing that. (Mara, to be fair, will be a little bit known by the time Dragon Tattoo comes out, since she’s got a major role in Fincher’s upcoming Facebook movie, The Social Network.) By turning his whole casting process into a kind of role-of-the-century Cinderella event, a contemporary version of the search for Scarlett O’Hara (that’s Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, above right — is the resemblance between her and Rooney Mara a coincidence?), Fincher did something extremely shrewd: He captured and built into the movie, before it even started shooting, the momentous quality of Lisbeth as a character. She speaks to readers around the world, and especially to women, because she represents a new-style fusion of victimization and empowerment. She’s Clarice Starling with the agony (and fiery revenge) of her past etched onto her skin.
If Fincher can infect this movie with the kind of intensity he brought to Zodiac, then The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has the chance to be a prestige crossover thriller on the order of The Silence of the Lambs. We’ll know in a little over a year, of course, but whatever the film turns out to be, there’s one prediction that I want to make right now, and it has everything to do with Rooney Mara: No matter how serious Fincher is about making a popular work of thriller art, my hunch is that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is going to be marketed as a fashion revolution (as Vivien Leigh was in Gone With the Wind), with Mara’s image as Lisbeth displayed in media around the globe as a new kind of sullen, razory, waif-rebel icon. Mara herself will have to undergo that transformation, and the before-and-after images of her should be edgy-makeover PR magic. Tattoos, of course, are already as middle-class as can be, and it’s not as if we’ve never seen punked-out girls before, but it’s exactly a movie like this one that can nudge a certain style from the margins of the mainstream into the hot commodified center of it. Get ready to buy a ticket and, if they’re a certain age, to hide your daughters.
So are you excited by David Fincher’s decision to cast an unknown like Rooney Mara? Or would you rather have seen a name actress play Lisbeth — and, if so, who?