The Grade: B+ (on DVD)
The Girl Who Played With Fire – Directed by Daniel Alfredson
The Grade: A- (on DVD)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Directed by Daniel Alfredson
The Grade: C+ (in theaters)
Trilogy as a whole: B+
The Swedish film versions of the suddenly (and posthumously) popular trilogy of novels by Steig Larsson wrap up today with the theatrical release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, so it’s an ideal time to assess the three films together, the first two of which opened in theaters earlier this year and are now available on DVD. The much Ballyhooed Hollywood versions of the films have just gotten underway with director David Fincher, star Daniel Craig, and newcomer Rooney Mara as the titular Girl, but we won’t be seeing the first of them until Christmas 2011, so the Swedish versions have to tide us over until then—a task they accomplish pretty well
The first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, opened back in April, and introduced us to lead characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist as they come together to solve the disappearance of a young girl. While the title might lead one to think otherwise, the first film is really Mikael’s story; as an investigative journalist and publisher of “Millennium” magazine, Blomkvist has come under fire for a libel case in which he may have been set up. Prevented from returning to normal work, Blomkvist is hired by the patriarch of the powerful Vanger family to help solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance forty years prior. Professional hacker Lizbeth Salander, initially working for Blomkvist’s legal opponents to help frame him, ends up aiding him on his new case.
At 152 minutes, the trilogy’s first film is its longest, but it never seems like it. Even though we realize at the film’s conclusion that it was a fairly standard mystery/thriller, it perpetually feels like something greater and deeper while we’re in its throes. Like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s a film in which the supporting character who aids the protagonist ends up being the most compelling person in the movie. We first meet Lizbeth as a waifish, helpless victim of her controllers, but she seizes control of her own life with a flare for the dramatic, and it’s compelling enough for us to follow her story into two sequels.
The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire, opened this summer, and features a switch in both focus and director. While the first film was spurred along by an extraneous plot that the characters become involved in, the second film permanently changes the spotlight to Lizbeth Salander, her past, and her attempt to extricate herself from that past. (It’s useful to remember that the first book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women, which implies that two sequels focusing on Lizbeth might not have originally been planned for.) Fire is the best film of the trilogy both because Lizbeth is most directly involved in the action, and the action is most directly centered on Lizbeth; the plot arrives out of her character, instead of just existing to give her character something to do, as in the first film. The climactic scene of the film sees Lizbeth rise out of her own grave (literally) to confront her past with an axe to the head (not a metaphor), and in doing so, she becomes the perfect heroine for the new millennium: her weapon of choice is a laptop, but she’s more than capable of getting her hands dirty the old fashioned way. There's talk in Hollywood of mounting a campaign to get actress Noomi Rapace an Oscar nomination for playing Lizbeth, and if so, this is the movie it should be for.
Unfortunately, the final film—this week’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—cruelly halts this momentum as efficiently as an opposing coach calling for a timeout. While the first two films effectively created an appetite for seeing what Lizbeth is capable of, the third film (running for a feels-like-it 148 minutes) shackles Lizbeth to a hospital bed and a courtroom chair for well over two hours, giving her nothing more than a cell phone to play with until she finally gets crafty with a nail gun in the last ten minutes of the movie. Say what? While Lizbeth spends the first half of the movie in the hospital, there’s at least the promise that the excitement will ratchet up along with her condition, but once it becomes clear the second half of the movie won’t break free of its legal doldrums, there’s an inescapable feeling that this isn’t what we signed up for.
But here’s what’s worse: on top of Hornet’s Nest killing Lizbeth’s mojo, the plot feels utterly superfluous. The Girl Who Played with Fire was essentially about Lizbeth discovering the truth about her past, confronting the people who wished to control her, and defeating them. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is essentially about
the exact same thing. All of the revelations and answers were packed into that second film, and it ended with what looked like a resounding victory for Lizbeth. The third film basically tries to tell us “Wait, the fight’s not over! The struggle continues
in the courtroom!” In many ways, Hornet’s Nest provides a valuable lesson for the new practice of filmmaking in which entire series’ are filmed at once: Don’t play your trump card if there’s still another whole film to go.
In spite of all this, the movie could have redeemed itself in the closing bits, but that’s yet another lost opportunity. After winning her freedom and defeating the last of her transgressors, Lizbeth triumphantly goes home and... has a cup of coffee. Roll credits. That would be fine as the ending to an episode of Law & Order, but as the ending of a hotly anticipated film trilogy? It has the audacity to be an anticlimactic conclusion to a movie that was already anticlimactic in its duration, but it gets an “A” for consistency. There was a great shot in the second film of Lizbeth defiantly riding the motorcycle she took from someone who crossed her, looking like quite the badass, and ready to deal with anyone that gets in her way. Would it be too much to ask for the trilogy to have ended with something like that? In many ways, it’s not enough for Lizbeth to simply win; we deserved to see her seize her freedom, but we didn’t get it.
It is, however, useful to remember that these films are adapted from the immensely popular novels, meaning a) any inherent flaws in the plot structure are most likely the fault of the book author and not the filmmaker, and b) if the filmmakers had significantly changed a recently deceased author’s most famous work, there would have been public outrage. So, assuming these adaptations are at least vaguely faithful (I haven’t read the books), I’m mostly complaining about the way Larsson chose to end his trilogy rather than the way Daniel Alfredson chose to film it. Honestly, I sort of feel like the second and third book/movie should have been switched—let the middle part of the trilogy knock around a courtroom while Lizbeth goes crazy with an axe in the finale.
Even still, while not totally placing blame on Alfredson for the lack of ass-kicking in Hornet’s Nest, one can’t help but wonder if a great filmmaker could have found a way to make it more compelling. And this is why I’m suddenly even more intrigued for what David Fincher will do with the Hollywood version of the stories. Fincher, director of the year’s best film in The Social Network, the modern classics Seven and Fight Club, and the woefully underappreciated Zodiac is a master at slowly building momentum and intensity. Given this, it seems inconceivable that his version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will fall prey to the same flaws, but that’s still over a year away. In the meantime, the Swedish version of the trilogy is now complete, and it is overall a very worthwhile movie experience. The first film is little more than a really well done genre film, and the third film, while not boring, does feel a bit useless, but the second film is the true keeper. It is the trilogy’s raison d’etre, and the showcase of a great character who is sure to become a key figure of pop culture.
Daniel Joyaux is a film critic based in Ann Arbor. His posts can also be found at his regular blog, Third Man Movies & Culture (thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com).