I was walking in Ashland on a gorgeous late-summer day this year when a strange thought slipped into my head.

I was walking in Ashland on a gorgeous late-summer day this year when a strange thought slipped into my head.

"How the hell did this place give rise to David Fincher?" I thought.

I've always been interested in Fincher's experiences in Ashland, where he spent his high school years before moving to the Bay Area and then to Hollywood immortality.

I believe artists are molded by place above all else. Where you come from is what you are. I truly believe this. Ask William Faulkner or Woody Allen. They'll agree.

So what was it about Ashland that shaped young Fincher into our country's most doom-laden cinematic craftsman?

I attended Fincher's latest and most explicitly brutal film, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" looking for answers.

I found none, of course. Fincher is a slippery character. Read what passes for an interview with the man. He has mastered Tiger Woods' and Michael Jordan's talents of spouting this and that in terms of his abilities, but upon a closer look, we find that he actually said zilch of substance and certainly nothing that will come back to bite him in the ass once the interview hits TMZ.

Fincher's defensive posture with journalists is understandable. He probably looks at Allen, Polanski, Tarantino and other tabloid targets and says, "Screw that. I'll let my camera do the talking."

Speak, his camera does. And, dear god, what dark things it mutters through fanged teeth.

"Dragon Tattoo" looks as if it will bomb at the box office. If you are surprised by this, then you haven't paid attention to American film since 1978.

First, the studio that cut the film was too clever by half when it decided to drop this grim rape-and-torture revenge fest on audiences on Christmas freaking weekend.

I haven't much use for Christmas, but even I wasn't feeling up for plumbing the perverted depths of Swedish misogyny and bizarre fetishism last weekend.

I waited a week and parked myself in a one-fourth full theater on a weekday night at Tinseltown.

Let me be clear: I don't harbor a special affinity for the "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" source material.

I pounded down Stieg Larsson's three novels last year in a five-day binge. Reading these books was an odd experience in that I found them boring, riveting, sloppily crafted, challenging, stiff, humorous and horrific all in equal measure.

After slapping closed the last tome, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," I felt satisfied, but mostly relieved that Lisbeth Salander — the trilogy's irreparably damaged hacker genius — was no longer in my life. I wished her well. But you can read only so much about a character whose fascinating inner-life excuses her brutal methods of being sexually assaulted, beaten, burned, shot in the face, tortured with knives and hooks before you just want it all to go back to Sweden and stay there.

Perhaps my chilliness toward the novels is explained by Larsson's expertly drawn life of a working journalist. His hero Mikael Blomkvist is a hard-charging reporter who hates the corrupt power structure in his government and the murderous billionaires who have bought and paid off bureaucrats in order to indulge their every twisted fantasy. Sound familiar? Maybe the Swedes aren't so alien, after all.

(I wish Larsson's love affair with double cheeseburgers hadn't assassinated his heart following the third novel. Imagine Salander taking on the international banking industry following the economic meltdown. While sign-clutching Occupy Wall Street hippies smoke weed in public parks and call it revolution, Salander would be hacking the Bank of America and AIG mainframes to wreck the shadow economy before tracking the CEOs to their mansions to deal her unique and bloody brand of final justice. I'd read that.)

Fincher's take on the material does away with the flab and cuts to the nerve of Larsson's plot.

Meanwhile, the movie showcases Fincher's impeccable eye for detail and his natural gift of pacing and suspense. The dude could direct a movie about phone-book printing, and I'd stay pinned to my seat to the end.

His filming of Sweden's bone-white countryside and the labyrinthine interiors of the villains' fortress-like homes is on par with anything Kubrick or Tarkovsky put to celluloid.

Fincher takes a lot of heat from critics who accuse him of exploiting his characters and not delving into complex emotion or nuance. Not true. Anyone who says Fincher doesn't make personal films should see his masterpiece "Zodiac" and get back to me.

In the end, "Dragon" presents a bleak and cold worldview in keeping with most of Fincher's oeuvre. I am relieved that "Dragon" is a box-office disappointment, as it might mean he skips the next two and grapples with more challenging material worthy of his troubling talents.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.