When you think about it, there really is nothing to like about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What a nasty, gratuitous story it is -- a tale of brutalized women from an unabashedly male perspective. Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous airport-fiction novel is popular because of the very thing it claims to detest, namely a particular fascination with the extremes to which a man can punish a woman for her innate womanness. There is a mystery to be solved, of course, but really the prurient interest in the story is a page-turning, SVU-style curiosity about just how dark and sexualized and dirty the crimes have been. It’s telling that the book’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, was so perverted in international publishing. A fierce, telegraphing title is eschewed for something wry and sinisterly storybook -- three books about the horrors suffered by women, one woman in particular, becomes a cutesy trilogy about a “girl,” a tough gal whose rough treatment seems inevitable, but who at least has the moxie to fight back. Victimhood is innate to the female experience, the revised title, and Larsson’s own writing, seem to be saying, but some girls have the balls, heh, to stand up to it. It’s a repulsive and brutally unfeminist notion, a kind of mock concern used to cover up a genuine dark and giddy and horny interest in the depravity of it all. The story almost seems to thank sexual abuse, there's a furtively panting gratefulness, because without it there’d be no story at all.

This is not to say that terrible things do not happen to women in real life or that any fictionalized version of that is somehow innately exploitative, it’s just that one has to be curious about a society in which this particularly nasty story has been so popular. Popular enough to film twice! David Fincher’s new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film is the second movie made out of this story, following a Swedish made-for-TV version that made a star of the actress Noomi Rapace, who played the story’s chief survivor Lisbeth Salander, a pierced and (duh) tattooed creature who exacts revenge and retribution with elan and cunning. Salander is that kind of creation, an exciting caricature that can be rounded out by the right daring actress who will become a star because of the bravery she’s brought to this punishing project. Rapace was the first to wander down this gruesome path, and thus has first dibs on the bragging rights in perpetuity, but boy what a splash Rooney Mara makes in Fincher’s film.

Darting onto the screen like a pale crescent moon, Mara is all hard-but-wounded stares and utilitarian movement. Mara’s Lisbeth, or probably any Lisbeth, is not a dancer; there’s an economy to her physicality that suggests she would never dance or skip or bigly wave hello because she wants to save her energy in case she needs to sprint away. She’s a rare creature spotted in the woods, one who could be dangerous if provoked, but mostly you’ll glimpse her for a brief second and then she’ll be gone. Larsson has created a fascinating, elusive entity in Lisbeth, and Mara steps into her skin with nerve-rattling intensity. To use a cliche, Rooney Mara IS Lisbeth Salander -- quite thoroughly, quite terrifyingly. It’s the most mesmerizing performance of the year and this young woman deserves to be a big, big star.

It’s a shame, then, maybe an oddly inevitable shame, that the movie that surrounds her is such cannily shot nonsense. Fincher is maybe finishing a murder trilogy with this film (itself part of a trilogy); his Se7en was a gorgeously grim look at the existential futility of trying to ward off the dark, Zodiac was about the lone crusaders who refuse to recognize that futility, and Dragon Tattoo gives us a couple of people who manage, against all odds, to actually find some resolution in all of this muck. For a movie about raped and murdered women (many raped and murdered women at that), it’s oddly hopeful. And it’s off-puttingly funny. Lisbeth, a taciturn private investigator who has suffered terribly at the hands of men, is kind of hilarious. She’s blunt and curt and tough, but in a cute lil’ puppy kind of way. One almost has to stifle an “Awww” even when she’s kicking a metal dildo up a rapist’s ass.

Uh, yeah, that happens! Sorry, I’ve forgotten to fill you in here. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about a reporter, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just been found guilty of some sort of journalistic libel after he accused a bigtime business man of being a criminal in a magazine article. Disgraced and disappointed, he accepts a take-my-mind-off-it gig investigating the forty-year-old mystery of a teenage girl who disappeared on the tiny northern island that housed her family’s estate. Christopher Plummer plays her once doting, now grieving uncle who just wants closure. In exchange for Blomkvist’s investigative services, he offers him money and, more importantly, hard evidence against the bigtime business man. Blomkvist moves to the island to do his work, and the cold case is slowly unthawed. Lisbeth comes into the main story, as Blomkvist’s research assistant, about an hour in, only after we’ve graphically seen her raped by a social worker and her subsequent revenge against him. Those sequences supposedly have weight when the whole trilogy is considered -- the subsequent books delve more into Lisbeth's background and psychology -- but in this standalone film, which is ostensibly about the solving of a rather simple mystery, it sticks out as garish nastiness, rape as titillation. Fincher has never been terribly good to his women, but rarely before has he seemed so genuinely interested in their suffering. Yes this horrid scene is in the book, and so one could argue that Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian were merely being loyal to the manuscript, but as a separately autonomous film (there will likely be sequels but there are no concrete plans yet), it seems wholly unnecessary. I'm still struggling to understand why the rape had to be given such grand focus here -- Fincher kinda seems to do it just because he can and wants to. There's a weird and telling air of timidity to it, a slight flicker of uncertainty, but it happens anyway. “Should we really be doing this?” the movie almost whispers. And then it goes and does it, rather pointlessly when the greater film's needs are considered.

The actual guts of the movie are pretty basic murder mystery stuff. Fincher films investigation really well -- here as in Se7en and Zodiac the amassing of evidence and research is built with propulsive forward momentum, we feel we really are figuring things out -- but the end product of it all proves to be a frustrating MacGuffin. What was the gain of all of this? Nothing, really. The obvious villain (it’s clear from his first scene) is indeed the villain, and the crimes, of which there are many, are, as expected, awful. OK. People did and do terrible things, sure. That the action is set on a snowbound Swedish isle populated by old Nazis and family ghosts certainly makes the rote mystery feel unique, but ultimately this really is an episode of Cold Case. It’s that slight, it’s that inconsequential. All the assured, dark filmmaking is great and all, but it’s built on such a rickety, forgettable foundation.

Which, again, in no way justifies the sexual violence of the movie. It’s great and satisfying to see Lisbeth enact vengeance upon her abuser, but it’s done as such a sore-thumb bit of exploitativeness that we immediately feel guilty for liking it. Lisbeth is the best thing about the movie! And yet in the end she has so little to do with the movie. The promos for this film teased it with the ominous tagline “She’s coming.” And indeed she has arrived. I just wish her movie, the actual movie about her, would hurry up and get here too. It's a strange feeling to not like a film and yet be dying for its sequel.