Something is rotten in the heart of Sweden. Financial corruption, the lingering ghost of Nazi collaboration, ingrained institutional misogyny, an unsolved murder case forty years old... Batman and Robin wouldn't know where to begin. Luckily, a different dynamic duo of talented investigative sorts in dingy goth garb and chunky knitwear respectively, are on hand to get to the bottom of things.
Although the chunky knitwear half of pair, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), is no cardboard cut-out, the dark heart of this story (whether we're talking the fat airport books, their Swedish language screen adaptations, or this Hollywood version), has always been the titular 'girl'. Twenty-something Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a misanthropic, borderline autistic, hacker genius whose policy of trusting no-one has been justified to date by the crap-sack hand she's been dealt in life. She refuses to be a victim, and refuses too to do the morally upstanding thing and turn the other cheek. As in director David Fincher's Fight Club, we're encouraged to empathise with some deeply dodgy behaviour from the supposed protagonist.
Being female, Lisbeth's under more obligation than your typical anti-hero to behave herself and do the grown-up thing. This character is placed under great pressure within the narrative of the film itself, but she's also operating under enormous cultural pressure. She's been held to represent by different commentators, variously: a sleazy male writer's fantasy woman, the greatest thing to happen to feminism since flammable bras, the best lead in a thriller in about a decade, a champion of vengeful vigilante violence, and a bold new figurehead for a female-led high-end thriller franchise.
Lisbeth herself, of course, wouldn't give a shit about how she's interpreted, and that's probably what allows the film to work. Lisbeth is not written or played as one-dimensionally representing any single critical stance, which is what allows so many interpretations of her to legimately co-exist. That's probably a healthy place for a piece of cinema to be - a more polemical script would leave less room for different readings.
You do have to wonder whether a male Lisbeth would be burdened with the weight of so many viewpoints, or whether he'd simply be allowed to be more of a Charles Bronson Death Wish figure. The rarity of this type of female lead aside, this film simply isn't very radical; it's just a big, slick, enjoyable thriller that happens to be less than usually shy of actually showing the sort of brutal rape that normally happens off-screen in these type of murder procedurals. It's ultimately David Fincher's perfectionist talent for creating a gripping aesthetic that raises this film above your average James Patterson adaptation.