It turns out that that missing girl story is peripheral to the main horror, which is that the remote Swedish island that is home to the Vangers has also been headquarters for a long history of rape and serial killing reaching back across the decades, though no one noticed this was happening until Blomkvist came on the scene. It’s difficult to say which is more pronounced — the sense of feminist grievance (with rapists and girl-murderers skulking in every dark corner) or the outrage that some company might be making money somewhere. As the sadly recently deceased Christopher Hitchens put it in a 2009 essay, Larsson’s “best excuse for his own prurience is that these serial killers and torturers are practicing a form of capitalism and that their racket is protected by a pornographic alliance with a form of Fascism, its lower ranks made up of hideous bikers and meth runners. This is not just sex or crime–it’s politics!” As for all those disgusting rape scenes? “Moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels,” Hitchens wrote, “because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval.”
So take the critical hosannas for Larsson’s trilogy with a grain of salt. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could hardly be pulpier, nastier, more contrived, or more risible. Its characters — morally pure crusaders, evil fanatics — could not be less developed. The sex scenes between Blomkvist and Salander seem thrown in to give us one more chance to see Mara (who is in her twenties but has the body of a high-school sophomore) naked, not because Fincher makes us see any connection (emotional or physical) between the characters. The film is as depraved as Caligula, but at least Caligula didn’t pretend to be anything other than smut.