Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Movie Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

This time it's personal.

During the mid-eighties, at the height of the suspense genre in America, when audiences would develop an attachment to a star like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson over a span of several movies in some series of crime thrillers, this seemingly ubiquitous tag line usually resided somewhere on the poster for the sequel, implying we were going to find out more about our hero's background in the sophomore movie since we enjoyed the character so much in the first. The truth is I can only find one real reference to this tag line in cinema, and that is for the fourth entry in the Jaws series, Jaws: The Revenge (but it felt widespread enough that Back to the Future Part II makes a small joke about it with a Jaws 19 poster that reads "This time it's really really personal"). A sequel starring large-scale central characters inevitably turns inward to examine its own protagonists, let the audience know what makes them tick. So it's not unexpected that The Girl Who Played with Fire would follow suit, justifying the use of such a tag line by turning its focus on the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander. The second part in this Swedish suspense trilogy digs deeper into the pierced, emo-looking, kickboxing, computer-hacking basket case so intriguingly played by Noomi Rapace in the earlier The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). But does it find anything there to sustain our interest?

While the first film's title focused on Salander's exotic punk "otherness," this one refers to another of her defining qualities, her emotional aloofness. As The Girl Who Played with Fire declares in its title, the story behind Salander's detachment stems from a specific incident in her youth (the flashback of which we saw in the first film) when she lit her father on fire. Institutionalized for the crime, she fell prey to continuous abuse by many of the men assigned to protect her. This film conspiratorially ties them all to a human trafficking ring which, for some confusing reason I forget, frames Salander for murder. The white slavery McGuffin ends up disappearing from the plot altogether, as the story is reframed to follow on Salander's efforts to clear her name while her journalist buddy, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) helps her from afar.

Therein lies the most glaring flaw of this trite unconventional storyline. The Girl Who Played with Fire sacrifices the only aspect of the series which transcends its rather ordinary thriller tropes, the chemistry between Rapace and Nyqvist as an odd couple sleuthing team. The ineffable mystery of their bond disappears with the logorrheic insistence on exposing Salander's soul. In my review of the last film, I compared Salander and Blomkvist to Star Trek's Spock and Kirk, respectively. The description is not inapt. Salander has a near inhuman ability to break through any computer firewall, superhuman kickboxing prowess, a photographic memory, etc.; her only deficiency is her inability to express emotion. Blomkvist is all too human, displaying humor, empathy, and dogged determination when needed, even if occasionally he needs Salander to play deus ex machina and save his ass from some impending doom. The intention here, is to turn the tables on Salander, place her out of her depth so Blomkvist can save her. But it does so at the expense of keeping them separated for roughly 119 of the film's 129 minutes, with each failing to understand the story in toto, losing the audience in the process.

Salander is left to fight her most dangerous battle yet against an evil man who knows her best of all. And she still manages to stay ahead of every henchman, every obstacle, she even puts more of the pieces of the puzzling mystery together faster than her partner does. So what is the point? In approaching the level of divine intercessor in her own backstory, she becomes an unknowable cipher. Her soul is splayed open for all to see, and what we find is as steely and hollow inside as it once appeared from the outside. And there's still one more movie to go. What are they going to say next time?

This time it's really really personal?

The Girl Who Played with Fire opens Friday in limited release.


The Taxi Driver said...

Tony, I haven't seen the movie yet so I haven't read your review yet so if you answered this question above I apologize but I'm curious, as someone who hasn't read the books, are these movies one continious story or are all three of them self contained narratives with the same character?

Tony Dayoub said...

Sorry I never got back to you, Mike.

I'm not sure how the books are. The film trilogy is one continuous story. However, the first one also works as a self-contained plot. The second one... not so much.

Jason Bellamy said...

First to (sort of) answer Mike's question ...

I haven't read the books, but a buddy of mine has, and he said the first film, at least, is "very faithful" to the book. From watching the trailer, he got the sense the sequel is equally faithful. Moving on ...

Tony, this is a terrific review. Your Kirk/Spock analogy is one I'd never thought of in a million years, but it's perfectly accurate. Well done! I also agree with you about the rest of the film, the way it hurts to separate the characters, the way they seem to be running out of ways to make all of this interesting. I preferred the first film simply because it had the sense of discovery -- figuring out who Lisbeth is and how she works, in addition to trying to solve the mystery. That said, the first film was more of a letdown, because its over-the-top ending surprised me. This time I knew what to expect.

And that leads me here: I'm baffled by all the entertainment types who keep writing things to the effect of, "See these original films now before the American versions inevitably screw them up." What's to screw up? These films are about as Hollywood mainstream as foreign films get. If the characters were speaking English, they'd get a run at any multiplex in the country. Which isn't to imply that they wouldn't sell better if they included some big American stars.

To that point, the only way the US adaptations can screw things up is in the casting (well, that, or if they decide the narrative twists aren't extreme enough and add some high-speed chases, flipping cars, CGI and Lisbeth strutting away from an explosion ... none of which I feel comfortable ruling out). Rapace is a terrific Lisbeth (my buddy who has read the books agrees). It's amazing how compelling it is to just watch her, even when she's not doing anything. The films get silly when they try to go beyond that.

Tony Dayoub said...

Since I first answered Mike's question, I read somewhere that the films are pretty faithful, the one exception being in regards to Mikael's active sex life in the novels, which many have said was unrealistic wih fulfillment on the part of their author anyway (he used to be an investigative journalist just like Mikael).

Totally agree with you, Jason, on the question of "what's to screw up?" As I said at Glenn Kenny's site, these films are about as boilerplate as you can get, even more disappointing because one expects more from foreign films which make it to our shores. If anything, I'm hopeful David Fincher (who is signed to direct) will make it more complex. Daniel Craig has been perfectly cast as Mikael. I heard Carey Lowell and Ellen Page were up for Lisbeth. Neither works in my opinion. I would have prefered Kristin Stewart which I also heard was up for it, but she denies involvement.

One area where you could see the American version backpedal is the trilogy's underlying theme of violence against women. Both movies are strongest when exploring it and they do so unflinchingly. But the puritanical environment here has me presuming that while Americans can accept frank sexuality in foreign language movies, they have a problem with it in mainstream studio films (owing perhaps to the different demographic segments each is targeted to). Look for the most handwringing, and maybe even revisions, in this aspect of the American versions.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good prediction on the backpedalling, Tony. Also, I think we're assured that we won't see any shots of Lisbeth going down on her girlfriend.

I think I'd have preferred Stewart, too, but if you've seen Hard Candy, you know that Page has the chops to get the job done.

If Fincher directs, there's a lot of hope.

Tony Dayoub said...

Just reread my comment from earlier, "I heard Carey Lowell and Ellen Page were up for Lisbeth."

Carey Lowell? I must be living in the nineties. I meant Carey Mulligan.

Unknown said...

I heard Kevin Spacey was to be our Blomkvist.