Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" novels begin with the investigation of a murder and end with the modest metamorphosis of a character -- a tattooed, pierced, edgy twenty-something whose complex social disposition is hastily labeled either discordance or apathy. Some claim the book's pulpy thrills are responsible for the author's posthumous popularity, but, really, the events that unfold in the stories are more a means of exploring the nature of a misunderstood, gritty heroine, Lisbeth Salander, and how we observe her sexuality, her sanity, and the machinations of her twisted family. Similar to the novels, the Swedish film adaptations of the story attempt to strike a balance between the plot's two halves: twisted quasi-whodunits that paint government and corporate higher-ups in a negative light, while humanizing and exploring the nuance of a girl they demonize for her outward and inward appearance. In this particular take on the material, one side clearly dominates the other.
Larsson stumbled onto a fascinating character when he elaborated on Lisbeth in his musings, one who he himself clearly found fascinating based on his memories of a troubling childhood incident ... perhaps even obsessively so over her subversive temperament. He elaborated on his own curiosity under the appearance of a trilogy based on the magazine Millennium: a high-brow tabloid rag in Sweden helmed by Mikael Blomkvist, played here by Sweden's illustrious Michael Nyqvist, who occupies the other half of the "protagonist" label with Salander. The magazine offers a means, whether in-print or by association, for bringing harsh topics to the public eye -- corporate espionage and sabotage, sex trafficking, corruption in national security, and the institutionalization of patients who don't deserve it -- while providing a basis for Lisbeth's story arc to develop and mature over time. Larsson works parallels in that expound on how the big mysterious cases apply to her, and he generates clear intrigue by seeing how these things tie to her life, whether physically or thematically.
Once woefully-overlooked as a television and underused cinema performer, Noomi Rapace brings Lisbeth Salander to life. In combination with Larsson's writing, she brings a fresh perspective to the audience's perception of a punk girl, a body-art enthusiast, a hacker, and of bisexuality/pansexuality. In interviews, Rapace makes it known that she couldn't do justice to the myriad pictures that individual watchers have ascribed to the character in the minds through the books; instead, as a fan of the series herself, she brings the character to life through her own interpretation, and the result comes very, very close to obtaining a wide-sprawling take on Lisbeth that'd satisfy everyone. Her petite-yet-tough form gives the character an edge, one even sharper than exists in the book: she's fierce and not one to force in a corner, with an enigmatic streak and glimmers of softness that accentuate our curiosity. Rapace's skill as an actress quickly establishes her as a mystery, not just a screwed up member of society.
Her enigmatic appeal originates in Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where the audience experiences a clear partition in two sides of a murder investigation: inspection of the whodunit's twist and turns themselves, and the mental fabric of the person who plays a key part in eventually ciphering the data. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the patriarch of a wealthy family who builds their wealth in the financial districts that Millenium often investigates, hires recently-maligned magazine pioneer Blomkvist for a last-ditch effort in discovering the truth behind the disappearance of his troubled niece, Harriet. Blomkvist, diving head-first into the mystery, reveals a corrupt network of misogyny and Nazi ties, as well as a registry of clues that seem like they point to answer -- but it's not something even a skilled, inventive reporter with years of experience can elucidate. While he scurries about on the Vanger estate, we also witness the evolving life of Lisbeth, the troubled hacker/researcher who gathered background data on Blomkvist before he came under Henrik Vanger's employ. They'll converge; we know it, and the movie knows how to use that to its advantage.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo rides a stark balance between the two halves, allowing Blomkvist to follow breadcrumbs through the snowy Swedish country while developments within Salander's chaotic life in Stockholm (especially around her legal guardianship) explode out of control and allow us to learn more about what's caused her to appear so emotionally bruised and socially standoffish. It's only once the two sides collide, and Salander and Blomkvist discover a catalyst when they lock eyes for the first time, that the story really takes shape; the mystery behind what happens to Harriet might generate faint curiosity on its own, but it's hard to really invest personal emotion into it until Lisbeth, a troubled entity like Harriet, gets her hands dirty with deciphering the evidence before her. That, and Rapace's cathartic realization of the character, becomes the bread-'n-butter behind why this adaptation telegraphs such a subversive, challenging punch. At that point, it becomes a personal journey instead of a whodunit, and director Oplev knows the chords to strike -- both thematically, and with Rapace's capability -- to elevate it.
A natural cascade downwards occurs in The Girl Who Played With Fire: at the end of the first installment, the mystery of the Vangar Corporation's deep, dark secret has been solved. That fuel has been tapped; what's left, however, is the mystery behind Lisbeth, and Larsson's enthrallment with the character allows him to follow her intrigue down the rabbit hole. Again, the story's structure is built around another case for Millenium to crack, this time about sex trafficking and how it pertains to heavy-hitters in Sweden's infrastructure. Once Lisbeth's name starts to correlate with some of the events that unfold in the investigation, and with a murder that occurs, the situation gets reframed with her involvement in mind. Blomkvist works diligently to find Lisbeth, who had disappeared at the end of the events in Dragon Tattoo; Lisbeth, who tries her damndest to not be found, finds it harder and harder to keep her distance when troubling elements of her past start to emerge in both Millenium's new subject and with her fraught relationship with her guardian.
In either cinematic iteration, new director Daniel Alfredson's take on The Girl Who Played With Fire is lacking some of the depth and intellect present in the book it's based on -- but that's natural, given the inherent nature of stripping down source material to the essentials. It does prove to be one of this film's weaknesses, however: learning more about Lisbeth's past, especially as they pertain to elements involving her family, becomes the driving force that we care about, while the other half of the story's sex-trafficking thrust only earns its power by relying on the audience's inherent disdain for misogyny and lurid dealings pertaining to it. The case itself, unfortunately, isn't all that interesting on a fundamental level, but again our dark, pierced heroine makes it compelling due to her complicated perception of it. Rapace stays on top of her game; she never falters, her lean disposition fluctuating between composure and disturbance in a masterstroke of acting presentation. And it's enough to simply watch how her iteration of Lisbeth ardently connects to the darker corners of Millenium's new case, and what she learns of her family's past. Don't get me wrong: the film's energetic and twisty enough, but straightforward and lacking mental engagement.
Still: admirable, enjoyable qualities can be found in The Girl Who Played With Fire and the elements outside of Lisbeth, but those screech to a halt in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Without giving too much away, this film becomes all about the resolution to Lisbeth's struggles, both past and present, and how they pertain to a government cover-up involving her family's complex past. Unfortunately, they all take place in a situation that leaves Lisbeth unable to communicate with much of the outside world and unable to do most of her own sleuthing, leaving her to stagnate in her psychosis and condition while Blomkvist, Millenium, and other allies do the leg-work she normally can do. The problem? Much of the intrigue generated in this Dragon Tattoo franchise hinges on how Lisbeth becomes a quasi-Sherlock Holmes and watching her mental gears crank, and without it we're missing a lot of intrigue. In the novel, where one can explore and investigate internal thoughts, it's compelling; in cinematic form, it's disjointed, tedious, and manipulative. Without the Salander-Blomkvist chemistry, Hornet's Nest is certainly lacking something.
The Girl Who Kicks The Hornet's Nest slumps into a bland, exaggerated mix of courtroom theatrics and police/government procedural mechanics, and it's due in large part to Daniel Alfredson's overall direction not elevating the material beyond that of TV-caliber inventiveness. Exaggerated villains and 11th hour developments significantly mar the film's overall flow and pragmatism, rendering boisterous twists and turns that roll eyes more than they captivate, yet there's one constant variable that keeps it from descending below the line of mediocrity: the performances, namely that of Noomi Rapace. Even when she's operating within the confines of blunt, stereotypical character decisions and without the chemistry she shares with Michael Nyqvist, her wide eyes and embroiled poise accentuate the emotional complexity of every scene she's in, even one as simple as when she shows a doctor the tattoo we know emblazons her back. There's an electric atmosphere still present in the conclusion amid the labyrinth of mind-numbing conspiracy, and it's quite clear where it resides.
For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]