That person is the titular Girl, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara, The Social Network), a brooding goth with a tragic personal history of foster homes and abuse that has led her to still being a ward of the state in her early 20s (which comes with its own abuses that elicit the film’s most explicit scenes). As the duo slowly but surely make discoveries, what they find leads to crimes much more far-reaching in scope, sadism, and danger. 

Familiar with what was in store, my own pre-viewing anxieties were tempered by Fincher’s track record with similar subject matter.  Previous efforts such as Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac—while graphic and not for the faint of heart—validated their depictions by indicting the very cultural elements that spawned them. In being excessive, Fincher forced us to take a look at our society’s excesses and the destructive ends to which they lead. For that matter, he even did the same in the PG-13 rated The Social Network.

My hope, then, was that he could find a way to elevate the source, somehow incorporate themes to make it about more than the story, say something challenging (even prophetic) about our culture, and use it to reveal our own implicitness in this sort of twisted perversion. But he doesn’t, or couldn’t, or perhaps was simply too mindful of the fan base to tamper with it by turning it into a soapbox. 

What we’re left with is gratuitous voyeurism, the kind that not only fails to convict its audience for the willful part it plays in the coarsening of our culture but actually becomes part of the problem. It’s bad enough we’re required to sit through a protracted rape/torture, worse yet we must also be taken through the subsequent revenge rape/torture of the perpetrator, and worse still that’s not the end of the vile explicitness the film has to offer.

The unfortunate irony is that this tightly-wound and superbly-acted thriller doesn’t need any of that mess to create suspense, build it, or make us care deeply for these battered souls (or want justice for the unrepentant). Despite its artistic and narrative strengths, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ends up descending into the dark and sadistic slums seen commonly on television (various CSIs, Criminal Minds, and the ilk), even if more artfully here, but also with much more depravity.

Yes, writer Steven Zaillian (Moneyball) distills the labyrinth of details with notable clarity while director Fincher sets and then exponentially ratchets a menacing tone. The cast really commits, Mara especially as the damaged woman whose instinctive avoidance of eye contact not only reveals her fear and distrust of everyone but belies the fact that she remains fiercely engaged in every moment. Subsequently, she’s poised to attack—violently—when an unsuspecting perpetrator (sexual and otherwise) thinks he’s in control.

Watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was as consistently impressed as I was disgusted. It becomes so disturbing at times you wonder, “Who is this even for?” It then becomes even more disturbing when you realize, “Oh, that’s right—it’s for millions of avid fans around the world.”