Rooney Mara has got me by the balls. She’s tasered me, straddled my face, and inked her embodiment of Lisbeth Salander into my head. Unlike the scumbag recipient of her vengeance in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I’m honored that she’s left her mark on me. I’m tagged and branded as a fiend for this film, and I don’t care who knows it, Rooney Mara is the Lisbeth I had in my minds-eye when I read Stieg Larsson’s novel three years ago. Steve Zaillian’s script strips the story down to the lean machine I wish that book had been — but it was never about the story. The Vanger case is only the bait we bite so that Lisbeth can get her hook in us. Rooney Mara takes that hook and sharpens the barb to deadly perfection. It’s my favorite performance by any actress this year. For anyone who feels the same indelible attraction, The New Yorker‘s David Denby articulates Mara’s hypnotic appeal: Mara’s eyes, mostly unlined and isolated in her face, which has been chalked into a pale mask, express need as well as anger. Despite the spectacular athleticism of the subway scene—a single, continuous line of action—her physical presence is more approachable, more womanly (in the conventional sense) than Rapace’s. When her Lisbeth has sex with Blomkvist, the connection moves a little closer to a regular love affair. It’s true that Mara straddles Daniel Craig and drives toward her orgasm like a teenage boy, but, afterward, she looks at him with something like tenderness. There’s a hint of something more… something like an open admission of need, something like a bond. Critics have scattered in all directions this year, clutching to obvious choices like ants grappling for the biggest crumbs after their anthill was stomped by last year’s oxen. When the American Film Institute named The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo one of the 10 Movies of the Year, the film got a lot of prestigious traction. But then momentum seemed to spin away in more predictable directions. No matter. What we know by now is this: Critics are risk-averse this season. None of them want to be standing with their dicks in their hands like last year, so most of them have been playing it safe. That’s fine. The critics groups have made some honorable choices — but where’s the challenge, where’s the tingle of fireworks in playing it safe? For weeks leading up to Christmas, awards season felt tamed, neutered and domesticated to me. All the contenders looked too neatly packaged and carefully coiffed. I was craving more excitement, yearning for dirtier thrills. Rooney Mara delivered the daring fearlessness I’d been waiting for, and David Fincher wrapped her in another package altogether — maybe not so tidy, but far more fascinating. Jake Cole talked to Fincher for The Boston Globe: “I’m more attracted to the pervert’s story,” says Fincher. “I’m not as positive what we’ll all agree on. I think I made a choice early on in seeing that other sandbox and going, `Everyone else wants to hit that home run in escapist entertainment. And yet I always sort of liked this stuff that sneaks in through the side window. So why not provide a viable alternative? “That’s not to say I wouldn’t have loved to make a movie like `Jurassic Park.’ They all would have died, but …” Fincher smiles wryly, but he has deep admiration for Steven Spielberg and even musical theater legend Bob Fosse. After all, his virtual film school was working at the effects house of another escapist master, George Lucas, at Industrial Light & Magic. Still, the filmmakers that made a bigger impression were Alfred Hitchcock and, particularly, Roman Polanski — both directors known for deriving pleasure in subverting audience expectations for wholesome entertainment. “Hitchcock was more of a child playing with these ideas,” says Fincher. “Polanski, I don’t think, was ever a child. … I wish I was as confident to be as perverse as Roman has been.” This is how a smart director behaves when he’s being compared to Hitchcock and Polanski. But I’m not quite convinced that Fincher lacks confidence to be perverse. If there’s more perversity in store for us, I’m glad for the ankle shackles. Can I get another jolt with the taser to relax me before we proceed with any greater confidence? Though his visual abilities often overshadow his storytelling talent, Fincher, like Hitchcock and Polanski, might be best understood as a psychological filmmaker. He delights in describing, in great detail, a scene’s nuanced interplay of gesture, eye contact and emotion. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” may not differ mightily from the Swedish original, but few would argue that, by way of a million subtleties, it’s better crafted. “I genuinely feel like he’s the closest thing we have to Hitchcock,” says Craig of Fincher. “People kind of compare him to Kubrick, but there’s something else about him — something that he does with visuals and he does with actors. People kind of give career-defining performances in his movies.” The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is just that — a career-defining performance for Rooney Mara. What’s more, it utterly demolishes any grumbles that Fincher is less interested in character than atmosphere or that he doesn’t get women. Together David Fincher and Rooney Mara have given us the most thrilling female performance of the year. “David won’t lie to you,” says Mara. “He just won’t. I don’t think he’s capable of it. He’s the most straightforward human being I’ve ever met. He always empowers you to have a choice.” In a year stacked with seemingly mandatory overdue slots and Great Ladies many feel obliged to respect, is a rebel like Lisbeth Salander too furiously thrilling for the AMPAS to handle? Too perverse? Too sexy? Too violent? Lisbeth inspires sexual rage in men. She is both a victim and an avenger, a woman damaged, abused, yet defiantly sexual—a woman prepared to hit back and to stay out in the danger zone, unwilling to change, ready for more. The Goth regalia—black leather jacket and boots, tufted hair, spiked collar, piercings, an armory of rings—gives hints of dirty pleasures, harsh sexual combat, a readiness for pain. She’s already been through hell, pushed around a lot, and vulnerable (though no one could say innocent). With another push, or a period of weakness, she could slip into alcoholism or addiction; she could become a prostitute and then a corpse. Surely she’s close to being crazy, pathological. Or so it seems, at first… Dealing with the world as it is, she accepts the bargain demanded by her history and temperament—that she will risk punishment as the price of insolence and always claim the freedom to retaliate. The exercise of righteous violence is what turns action figures into pop-culture icons. That, plus an aura of outlaw style and perversity. It’s high time women in film be empowered with same raw threat of danger we admire so much in men. What better way for the Academy to empower actresses for more roles like Lisbeth Salander than to honor Rooney Mara’s ferocious performance.