I enjoyed the pulp trashiness of last year’s Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Director Nils Arden Oplev managed to elevate the material from Steig Larsson’s book into a satisfyingly entertaining and beautifully photographed film. The sequel (of a trilogy) does not match the success of its predecessor. While most of the original cast returns to reprise their roles, we have a new director who fails at elevating much of anything. Where Oplev succeeded in executing an artistic vision out of trashy material, new director Daniel Alfredson lacks the same ambition and aesthetic sense, thereby making another standard thriller without clear thought or vision. The picture simply does not work.
A year has passed since the end of the last film and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has been traveling around the world. Inexplicably she returns to Sweden, though without a word to anyone. I’ll skip a lot of the fine points of the plot as it would require more explanation than I am willing to give and there are many characters and subplots that go nowhere. Essentially she becomes the prime suspect in a triple murder that seems marginally connected to a sex trafficking ring and she spends the rest of the picture eluding the police, her friends, and whoever framed her for the murders. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) knows that Lisbeth is innocent and he initiates his own investigation, convinced that the police are following the wrong leads.
Noomi Rapace was fantastic as Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and continues her fine work in this film. It is refreshing to see strong women who don’t shrink in the face of danger. Even in the years since Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Demi Moore in G.I. Jane it is still uncommon to see strong women who don’t need the protection of a man. Lisbeth, a trained kick boxer, doesn’t shirk from danger; she faces threats of violence and rape without the typical helplessness we’ve so often come to expect from movies á la The Perils of Pauline. Rapace handles her character effortlessly and her work is one of the bright spots of the picture.
We learn more about the history of Lisbeth, but to what end? What we learn doesn’t shed any new light on her character or explain her motivations and complexities. Furthermore, it’s all fodder for the plot. We wouldn’t get any of these revelations were they not in service of the mystery of who framed her. Nothing we learn substantially changes anything we know about the character; they don’t deepen or complicate our understand of Lisbeth. It’s simply another mystery to be solved.
The character of Blomkvist is even less interesting this time than he was in the original. In the previous film we followed him through his investigation of the missing girl and watched him gradually become obsessed with the case. This time it feels like he is marking time, going through the paces from one clue to another, from one witness to another, as the mystery structure demands without much concern for anything else, like his character. It does little exploration of his character or probe the relationship with his girlfriend, which one would think would be complicated by his allegiance to Lisebth. But then for her to challenge Blomkvist would distract from the marginally interesting story. This is another case of characters only existing in the story to give important information or supporting the main characters in some way. Even the villains are silly: a hulking ex-boxer who has a genetic condition that makes him immune to feelings of pain? I know it’s a real condition, but here it feels gimmicky.
The original problem, I think, lies in the source material. I haven’t read the books, but I can’t imagine there is much more there than what we saw on the screen. That does not mean that the screenwriter Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson couldn’t have strengthened it by working more on bringing the disparate parts of the plot together into something coherent. There are so many characters that don’t go anywhere or do anything that it becomes clear this is just a throw away picture to get us to the final installment of the trilogy.
Even the eerie but striking cinematography of the original has been sacrificed in favor of efficiency. There seemed to have been little thought about where to put the camera or how to light a scene. In Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the opening scene of an old man opening a package was beautifully directed, down to the close-ups, angles and stylish lighting. We could almost see the dust floating in the air as we watched the man slowly break down over the disappearance of his beloved niece. None of the thought of that scene went into any of the scenes of this picture.
The Girl Who Played with Fire is a disappointment. The direction is lackluster and the script isn’t nearly as compelling as the original. (Whatever happens with the whole sex trafficking storyline?) The only positive holdover from the first picture is the continued strong performance of Noomi Rapace. I understand that there is a planned Hollywood remake of the series with David Fincher at the helm. According to IMDb Daniel Craig and Carey Mulligan are rumored to play the leads. Craig I can see, but Carey Mulligan? I think she is a fine actor, but I have a hard time picturing her as a tough post-punk bisexual computer hacker. To me it suggests the U.S. version is going to tone down her character which would be a mistake. The character of Lisbeth is what is most intriguing about the material and, as in the second picture, when the material isn’t handled well, the only thing the audience has to appreciate is her character. Watering her down, making her safe for Middle America would seriously handicap any effort to make it a good movie. Without Rapace’s edgy performance The Girl Who Played with Fire would have been even more pointless.