Thursday, December 30, 2010

FILM REVIEW #237: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Director: Daniel Alfredsson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyquist, Georgi Staykov

Last April Nat Tobin brought us the first of the Swedish films adapted from Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and in August the second installment duly arrived, The Girl Who Played with Fire. There was a comfortable year's gap in the narrative between the end of the first and the beginning of the second, a feeling that life went on for crusading journalist and magazine publisher Michael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquist), even as the mysterious Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) herself had repaired to some exclusive tropical isle to gather her own forces too.

No such breather this time. Played with Fire ends as a medical helicopter carries Salander, with multiple gunshot wounds including one in the head, grimy from her father's effort to bury her alive, off to a hospital. A second helicopter bears that father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), almost dead thanks to the axe she planted in his head. So exhausting and chaotic is the final harrowing sequence that I found myself needing to sort out exactly who was dead and who was still, though barely, alive.

As the third installment begins, those medical helicopters are just arriving at the hospital, and it's a tribute to the power of this story and these characters that the audience's intervening three months – as we have gone back to our lives between films – seem to vanish as we settle into our seats. Like the previous two installments, Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a long movie, almost two and a half hours, and again the time flies past. I even found myself sitting forward in my seat a good deal of the time. Now be honest: how often in a movie theatre are you really on the edge of your seat?

As with any good procedural-action thriller hybrid, trying to summarize the plot's various twists and turns in a paragraph or so is folly. Again Salander is framed for murder; again Blomkvist sets out to prove her innocence; again the forces of evil employ a frightening array of subterfuge, blackmail, intimidation and brute force, and a truly chill mastery of apparently passive public institutions. What's satisfying, especially if you've watched this film's two predecessors, is that the seemingly slow arousal of brave and decent people finally pays off here. In the way this films ties up strands from the previous two films it may be most satisfying. The single lone cop with integrity in Played with Fire, Inspector Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylén) returns with a whole shadowy task force this time, empowered directly by the prime minister and capable of lightening speed when needed (will they race across town in time to thwart Blomkvist's would-be killers?)

There are also moments of mind-blinding terror that repeat like a musical theme from film to film. In an early scene here, Salander – rescued from the grave, on the mend, seemingly well-protected in her hospital bed with a sympathetic doctor who smuggles in both pizza and a wireless device – hears that Zalachenko is down the hall, also still alive. This news triggers a flurry of reflex effort to free herself from her IV lines and flee: this panic is pure brain stem reaction in a universe where survival depends on mastering such impulse. You too may savor the expression that flickers across her face when she learns he's been killed.

Also like musical themes the violations of Salander's life re-play – moments we have seen in each film again – the moment of setting her abusive father afire as a child, her confinement to a psychiatric facility where she is held in restraints (now we learn that the officious Dr. Peter Telorbian kept her in full restraints for 381 days because she would not agree to his sexual advances at age 12), the rape she secretly filmed by her guardian after no official office would take her complaints seriously – though this time expanded upon in a courtroom trial.

Salander's attorney is Blomkvist's sister Annika (Annika Hallin), initially there entirely as a favor to her brother. As someone new to the saga, Annika acts as a reality check for us too – those of us returning a second or third time are perhaps used to Salander's strange ways of relating, already rooting for her – and she has her own posse of fanatically loyal misfits onscreen too – but Annika's reactions are a splash of cold water. How well can this young woman survive in the world, really? And Blomkvist's editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre), whose character has been restrained in the previous films, unfolds here as well.

Trilogy cinema – after all, these three movies were all filmed together – may be the movies' answer to HBO series story-telling, and this film proves the worth of taking the time to let a story mature and ripen through installments. We call it the "final" Steig Larsson because he died suddenly of a heart attack, actually before these three novels were published, though reportedly he left most of a fourth novel on his laptop of the projected ten-book series; his estate is still disputed by his long-time companion and his family. This film suggests that interruption amounts to a greater loss than we might have imagined.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the 11/18/10 print edition of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse, and the full review at