The Girl Who Played With Fire
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy likes to have it both ways. Playing amongst the art-house set due to a small release by tiny distributor Music Box Films, the first entry in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has grossed almost $8 million domestically. (Someone, somewhere at IFC Films is kicking themselves.) That the film did so well is a testament to having both art-house cred (foreign-language film, journalistic indictment of large societal forces) as well as some more, shall we say, conventional elements (sex scenes with a gorgeous woman and extreme violence—items found so rarely in commercial cinema!). Herein lies the rub with Dragon Tattoo: by functioning as both critique (in this case, of misogyny) as well as sensationalistic sexual thriller, it fetishized the same prurient desires it purported to condemn.
The same rub is found in the second film in trilogy, helmed by Daniel Alfredson as opposed to Tattoo's Niels Arden Oplev. The film picks up with our heroes, tattooed hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and reporter Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) not long after Dragon Tattoo left off. Back at Milennium magazine, Blomqvist has hired an investigative journalist in the midst of an expose on government officials patronizing prostitutes who are part of a sex trafficking ring; when said journalist and his girlfriend are murdered, the unknown powers-that-be frame Salander for the murder. Out of touch with one another for some time, Salander's and Blomqvist's paths are set to converge as they both work to get to the bottom of who runs the ring, and who is framing her.
At its best, the film plays as a sort of C-grade neo-noir take on the major-critique-of-unshakeable-power-structures movie (the uber-work in this vein being The Wire); in that regard, it's not dissimilar from the recent Red Riding trilogy, a British series that also updates noir elements (lone courageous—and sometimes na�ƒ¯ve—protagonist against unseen shadow forces that go to the height of power, said power enabling them to partake in their dark deeds). However, while the Riding trilogy hews relatively closely to realism, derives its narrative merit from psychological and character-based drama, and has a decidedly darker view of where its characters will wind up, The Girl Who Played With Fire combines its perspective with an aesthetic and outlook that feels more Hollywood action-movie than anything else. In one fight scene that feels like it's straight out of James Bond, a boxer goes up against a hulking mass who sustains many blows to the face without the slightest reaction. Later, we learn that the brute has congenital analgesia â�‚��€œ a disease that makes one insensitive to pain. How convenient.
The Girl Who Played With Fire wants to have it both ways, too. This time the primary contradiction is not in regard to Salander as a sex object (although, be sure, a lesbian sex scene early on toes the line between intimate portrayal of the character's personal life and blatant objectification); rather, the contradiction is a tonal one. The film at times wishes to be a serious thriller about journalistic and political intrigue—a level-headed look at power and the exploitation thereof, with well-developed characters guiding us. As a result, when the big action set pieces come in, the viewer instinctively feels the pang of being seriously manipulated; the characters in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and the social wrongs they attempt to right, are far too real and palpable to be subjected to the absurdist treatment of Hollywood action. As the characters find themselves in increasingly desperate situations, the manipulation becomes clear—how could such fleshed out characters be subjected to such impossible circumstances? You feel for them at the same time that you cry foul. And as the plot becomes more and more about whether or not our protagonists will survive, and less and less about the levers of power that enable sex trafficking to occur, one begins to feel that this real-life tragic problem has been exploited for the sake of simple plot mechanics. It all is, simply put, not fair play.