OUR storytellers, if we'd listen to them, have been trying to tell us something about our depressing new century. Something about echelons of power turned dissolute, even predatory - something you sense, for instance, when you think of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Sandusky reportedly left a trail of red flags stretching back to 1995, warnings that should have been heeded by child services, Penn State campus or state police, school administrators or a district attorney.
These people heard a confession of creepy behavior, listened to eyewitness testimony and somehow did nothing, making it possible for the purported abuse of needy and vulnerable children to go unchecked for at least a decade. Even the indictment was not enough to earn Sandusky house arrest.
The case springs to mind when watching the new American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first in Stieg Larsson's best-selling trilogy and a 2009 foreign-language hit notorious for a brutal depiction of sexual abuse.
A scene that many found too grisly for art-house viewing.
Too gratuitous, far-fetched.
But was it?
The victim, Lisbeth Salander (deftly played in the new version by Rooney Mara), is a ward of the state, a child of multiple foster homes, now a young woman deemed too mentally damaged to live without a guardian's supervision.
This places her at the mercy of the institutions meant to protect her. They turn out to be neither merciful nor protective, and while we'd like to think that her mistreatment might only happen in the movies, today's headlines say otherwise.
Larsson's "Tattoo" themes - privileged, insulated power preying upon the young and vulnerable - are well-suited to the times, and as such have been taken up by others. Examples include the U.K.'s brilliant "Red Riding" trilogy, or AMC's nearly brilliant "The Killing."
Now "Tattoo," the original provocation, has returned in a sturdy reboot from David Fincher. He's a brilliant technician, whose chilly view of humanity, aptitude for low-light and movie track record ("Zodiac," "Seven") are perfectly suited to "Tattoo" and its tale of a serial killer loose in a wealthy Swedish outpost north of Stockholm.
And what a cast he's assembled - Christopher Plummer as the industrialist who hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to root out the pathological murderer hiding in the gnarled branches of his family tree (Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson).
Mara (the girl in the ingenious prologue to "The Social Network") has the crucial role of Lisbeth, the punk/hacker/investigator who's turned a life of victimization into a controlled rage. Mara gets it all and gets it right.
Storywise, Fincher's "Tattoo" mimics the Swedish original, its extreme length and its odd structure - the movie turns on the relationship between two characters (Mara's, Craig's) who do not meet for more than an hour, converging finally when Blomkvist hires Lisbeth as a co-investigator.
Orphaned Lisbeth makes a convincing show of independence but craves a father figure, and finds one in Blomkvist, who is losing his hold on his own daughter.
The creepiest scene, in a way, isn't the earlier rape, but the way Lisbeth sexualizes her feelings for the much older journalist - on this score, Craig's casting is invaluable, because though he is much older than Mara, he's also James Bond, so the liaison is less of a throw-up-in-your-mouth mismatch than the Swedish version.