It's as bewildering a task as it is an unsettling one to consider who the intended audience might be for Stieg Larsson's international blockbuster Millennium franchise, particularly in its most recent, filmic manifestations. Incomprehensible ersatz-noir and numbingly inept thriller tropes awkwardly collide in the frothy, misanthropic rape-carnival of the trilogy's first chapter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with the titular character's battered backstory mostly an excuse to patchily portray a perpetuity of senseless sexism. And the now-infamously unflagging fusillade of purple violence still begs for conscientious unpacking; it's not the visceral unsavory-ness of the nonstop abuse we object to (though the dunce-y editing, clumsy staging, and digi-pasty color schemes don't exactly demand our attention) or the questionable ethics of a world in which cats relentlessly devour canaries with impunity. What irks us is the story's seemingly self-appointed "healer"-archetype paired with a furious lack of antagonistic nuance or psychological sympathy; the aggressors all have dicks and swastikas in yet another perverse conflation of dusty demagoguery with sexual deviance (yawn), and their victims all have budding mammary glands and spooked eyes. Until, of course, the oppressed develop into flat-chested, chain-smoking ciphers with a penchant for using self-mutilating accoutrements, hacker savoir-faire, and testes-aimed stun guns to, presumably, work through their personal angst. The content's cathartic potential is about as helpful as uttering "Who's the victim now, bitch?"
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or as it's more appropriately known overseas, Men Who Hate Women, is a veritable manifesto of misogyny—thematically handicapped and narratively lumpy, with flashbacks and emotional outbursts that nearly insult real-life survivors of such unthinkable trauma, as well as shot through a sickly green lens that appears to be observing the action just as queasily as we are. Indeed, it's the kind of untoward, god-awful ode to cracked masculinity that only rears a floppy phallus on the international market every few years. So even detractors of Millennium's malignant opening chapter are likely to be somewhat morbidly disappointed by the comparatively benign The Girl Who Played with Fire, which dials back on the unsolicited penile thrusts in favor of snoozily uninspired plot development and barely intelligible character histories that will no doubt be paid off by the third and final installment.
In the tradition of most trilogies, the dramatic bile of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was mostly self-contained, where The Girl Who Played with Fire feels like a transitional entry; there's no imperial family mystery in need of Hardy Boys-style unraveling with the help of an iron stomach and a Gabriel García Marquez-esque genealogical map this time around. At the start of the film, the reputation of curly chest-haired, muckraking journalist Mikael Blomkvist has been restored, and he and onetime twentysomething partner Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace)—the vaguely Goth, vacant-stared "girl" of all three titles—have drifted apart both personally and professionally.
Unexpectedly, one of Mikael's young investigators is murdered while on the verge of uncovering an Eastern European sex trafficking cartel, and Lisbeth's fingerprints are ID'd on the crime scene firearm. Complications arise. Gnarled affiliations and cryptic aliases are unearthed. Lisbeth shares an icy, aloof lesbian encounter with a friend she prods into inhabiting her abandoned apartment, mostly to ensure that her mail doesn't pile up. A burly, white supremacist biker/hit man with a genetic deformity disallowing the sensation of pain and the personality depth of a Mortal Kombat boss proves a formidable obstacle to accumulating the evidence necessary to corroborate Lisbeth's innocence. The story slowly exposes the brutal details of Lisbeth's torturous formative years while introducing dark figures from her past with This Is Your Life!-caliber sloppiness; as characters realize they've encountered clues, we cut to their concrete recollections with illuminating flashbulb sound effects in obnoxious triplet. And we feel the glut of names and dates and sadistic events cluttering the already strained space between us and the movie's lackluster cast as irritatingly as the avalanche of letters and envelopes that would have occluded the female protagonist's carpet from view had it not been for the neighborly grace of her fuck buddy.
The mise-en-scène of The Girl Who Played with Fire isn't as banally hyperkinetic as that of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (thankfully, as I'm still recovering from those endless Steadicam smash-pans), but director Daniel Alfredson can't quite wrench the tension he needs from the saggy script and often confusedly mislays his efforts. Scenes that crescendo with what should be startling revelations or discoveries seem to crawl by, nearly immobilized by unconvincing performances and unnecessary exposition, while the quivering strings and quick angle changes are ratcheted up when an innocuous home alarm system is about to activate. Alfredson also puzzlingly pauses a fight between two sub-supporting characters with a strobe-y lurch that would ordinarily indicate some espied opportunity at shifting the melee dynamic (has our surrogate of good noticed a weapon, or a weakness in his opponent?), but the slow-mo interlude ends without even so much as a sucker punch for punctuation, and the impromptu boxing match continues. It's one of several examples of cinema-grammatical errata suggesting that part of the reason the Millennium trilogy's heart appears to be in the wrong place is that its brains are shriveled and inert.
Even untrained editing and soporific storytelling can be redeemed by iconic performances, however, which is more or less how Nyqvist, and especially Rapace, have been lauded thus far, even by many who haven't warmed to the films in general. And admittedly, the former actor provides the only semblance of male nobility in the movies' über-repressive universe, though his undiluted chivalry is just as blitheringly binary as the sneering, humpy freaks he's constantly chasing on Lisbeth's behalf. Rapace's accolades, however, are baffling. Her nose-ringed hacker poses as an open-ended enigma and a symbol for the unhealthy psyche of the battered woman, but Lisbeth never transcends the identity of a poorly limned syndrome. She trembles when in need of nicotine, twitches her eyelids to ostensibly betray the subtle cracks in her deadened façade, and evinces an irreparable anhedonia, writhing atop the bodies of luckless sexual partners and exacting anal-penetrating revenge are accompanied by the same miscalibrated vapidity. Her strained, blank surface, which should callously veil oceans of uncharted pain, only communicates the trumped up inner-angst of an emo kid who cuts herself to stave off ennui; we never sense the PTSD rancor being perpetually held back in the core of a mistreated girl who lit her supercilious, pedophilic father on fire.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and to a lesser extent The Girl Who Played with Fire, may have succeeded as Jacobean-style revenge stories had they more narrative focus and camp sensibility; carnage can be counter-intuitively life-affirming when servicing an audience's manipulated desire to have all grudges on stage consolidated in a gleeful crimson spray. But the tense orchestras and bound-and-gagged bodies of the Millennium trilogy don't know whether they're trying to thrill, illuminate, or comment, an ambivalence that produces little more than nihilistic mediocrity. Sagas sporting an untenable amount of distaff-directed cruelty, and an equally suspect plethora of homophobic putdowns, are an Edda-old Scandinavian tradition, but the hateful film faux-pas and malevolent anti-humanism of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and now The Girl Who Played with Fire, make one wonder if social workers in Sweden shouldn't be swamped with clients.