There are a lot of breakout stars, but there aren’t too many like Rooney Mara, a relative unknown who, thanks to Hollywood’s juiciest female role, has been fiercely groomed for superstardom and hurled into the popular conversation. Recent ingenues like Elizabeth Olsen and Jennifer Lawrence have seen their directors’ good faith pay off at modest festival unveilings, where their out-of-nowhere performances wowed crowds and set off storms of buzz. Mara, however, has been programmed to be in their company, her out-of-nowhere impact predetermined by a director of similar good faith and a character who entices just about everyone, from magazine editors to goth lesbians to book-loving grandmothers. A molded muse if ever there was one, Mara went from stealing scenes in David Fincher’s The Social Network to morphing into the auteur’s vision of pop culture’s baddest vigilantess since The Bride, maybe even since Ellen Ripley. Her pierced, paled, and punked-out new look—a world away from the pretty, conservative chic she displayed as The Social Network’s Erica Albright—began trickling out in glimpses, with outlets like W Magazine carefully unrolling the black carpet to introduce the stateside incarnation of Lisbeth Salander. We were beckoned, and we gladly took the bait, yet through it all Mara remained silent and mysterious, an inaccessible figure literally poked and prodded as she assumed her fated, scrutinized position as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
What Mara presented offscreen isn’t really all that different from what she presents onscreen in Fincher’s latest. Her performance as Salander isn’t great, and it’s worth noting that, as an actor, she was more impressive in her few searing Social Network scenes, wherein she curtly and articulately chewed out the king of Facebook. In Dragon Tattoo, she is predominantly a presence, a slinky, androgynous, techno ghost who occasionally offers serviceable line readings while struggling with a Nordic accent. You feel her aura as you did in those magazine spreads, where she posed and didn’t speak. The consensus is dead-on, however, in that she is utterly hypnotic to watch, a commanding, outré beauty with a laser-like focus wholly appropriate for her iconic character. As evidenced by the many keenly chosen, square-jawed blondes who bring the Swedish tale to life, Fincher cast this thing for looks, and with Mara, he found a porcelain jackpot, whose skin and facial structure could be stared at for hours, and could evidently provide assurance that the necessary performance would emerge in due course (proven talents like Anne Hathaway and Mia Wasikowska were famously up for this part, but as recent doodles suggest, such casting probably wouldn’t have worked, as none of Hollywood’s go-tos boast Mara’s rare form, let alone her invaluable obscurity). Mara creeps through Fincher’s mise-en-scène in such a steely, perfectly immersed way that you can’t imagine anyone else doing it, and this is a second-round portrayal we’re talking about.
The Dragon Tattoo property can now take credit for launching two actresses’ careers (if you’re looking for Noomi Rapace, odds are she’s doing press events with Robert Downey Jr., or maybe re-shoots with Ridley Scott). And in addition to serving as a door to more opportunities, the role of Salander has accommodated two paths of embodiment. Aided by her heritage and a complete lack of vanity, Rapace was far more persuasive in terms of what the character had to tell you, and she never exhibited an ounce of the reticence that so often hinders newcomers. Mara, on the other hand, can’t be touched when it comes to magnetic physicality, and her obvious commitment to the role goes a long way in helping to eclipse her limitations. At 26, Mara shows a malleability and professional zeal that are both terribly exciting, pointing to more daring work and ever-sharpening execution. And if any added confidence is needed regarding the camera’s profound idolization of her, a simple Google search for her red carpet strolls will confirm that she’s equally intoxicating out of character. One can be primed for the badass role of a lifetime and even put through the A-List mill, but some virtues need no igniting.