The office politics of Swedish magazines and the intricacies of European libel laws can be reasonably compelling. The sexual and professional exploits of a middle-aged journalist are not without interest. And everybody likes a good, sick multigenerational family scandal, especially one involving sex and Nazis. But, as the shrewd publisher who changed the title of the late novelist Stieg Larsson's Men Who Hate Women figured out, it really all comes down to one thing: the girl with the dragon tattoo.
Three novels, three Scandinavian film adaptations, tens of millions of readers, and one big Hollywood gamble on a piece of uncompromisingly dark yuletide entertainment later, it's still true. Lisbeth Salander, the sleek, spooky avatar of payback who attempts to exorcise her past and take one small step into civilized society while investigating a rotting family dynasty, is the first character from a grown-up novel to become a pop culture touchstone since Hannibal Lecter. And she's never been more fascinating than in David Fincher's new film. (Initial grosses were reasonable for a 158-minute R-rated movie whose own ads cheekily called it ''the feel bad movie of Christmas''; to become a bona fide hit, it will need the good word of mouth that its A CinemaScore seems to portend.)
Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian (the expert adapter whose credits range from Schindler's List to Moneyball) have caught all of Lisbeth's contradictions and frictions she's supercompetent but marginalized, strong but fragile, emotionally affectless but vulnerably self-protective, human and other, unmistakably female and yet a gender unto herself (notably, when she gets into drag at the movie's climax, it's as a woman and nobody recognizes her). Even though many of us know how it all turns out, Salander remains the mystery to which we keep returning: Who is she? What is she? Why is she?