From The Parallax Review Vaults: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Girl Who Played with Fire was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Editor’s Note: Since this is a review of a sequel, it will contain some spoilers in relation to the previous film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

A film trilogy is tricky business. Too often, in an attempt to tell an epic story, the filmmakers resort to making films that fail to stand on their own, feeling more like episodes of a television series. With the first film in the “Millennium trilogy,” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the filmmakers managed to successfully craft an engrossing, stand-alone mystery that laid the groundwork for the next two films. Unfortunately, part two of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, falls into the common trap that the first film avoided. Filled with dangling plot threads, a cast of characters that seems to increase exponentially with every scene, and a convoluted mystery at the heart of the script, the film fails to work as a satisfying, stand-alone piece of storytelling.

A year has passed since the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) is still working at Millennium Magazine, while trying to track down Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace). For her part, Lisbeth is still living abroad on the funds she stole at the end of the previous film. While she is trying her best to stay out of trouble, she learns that the scummy lawyer who raped her, Bjurman, is making plans to have his incriminating tattoo removed. Feeling he has betrayed their arrangement, Lisbeth foolishly returns to Stockholm to confront him. Of course, it’s not long after her return that a series of murders occur with evidence pointing to Lisbeth. While she goes on the run, trying to track down the real killer, Mikael tries to clear her name by proving the murders are tied to a smuggling ring trafficking sex-slaves.

That convoluted plot description could also double as a description of the film’s biggest weakness. Twisty conspiracy stories with ever-expanding plots can work if they’re handled with respect for the audience to be smart enough to follow along with the characters (All the President’s Men, Chinatown). When they don’t work is when the filmmakers feel the need to have two characters sit down and explain to each other exactly what is happening. Not only is it redundant, it makes for poor cinema. There is nothing less visually interesting than watching characters stop every ten minutes to show each other a document or a computer screen and explain how this new information fits in with the story. Maybe this technique worked better in the novel, but director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg make no effort to adapt these scenes of endless exposition to work as a story on the big screen.

Events finally pick up in the third act, with several ridiculous but interesting twists pointing Lisbeth and Mikael to her past to find the clues to the modern-day mystery. A brutally violent climax answers some of the questions that the film posed, but it’s done in such a rushed manner that it doesn’t satisfy the time invested to that point. The concluding indication that much of the story will spill messily into the next film was just the final bit of frustration.

While Lisbeth and Mikael are well-played by Rapace and Nyqvist, the rest of the sprawling cast fails to make much of an impact. Much of this can be blamed on the fact that they are not really playing characters. They are playing plot-generators and sources of information. Cops, reporters, and criminals all start to blur together, paling in relation to the rich characterization that is given to Lisbeth and, to a lesser extent, Mikael.

As frustrating as much of the film was, with new layers given to the tragic Lisbeth, and some honestly tantalizing questions that the third act raised, I am still invested enough to look forward to the final film in the series. I just hope the filmmakers can regain some of the style and forward momentum that made the first film such a slickly enjoyable mystery.

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