2018 | rated R | starring Claire Foy, Stephen Merchant | directed by Fede Alvarez | 1 hr 55 mins |
In 2018, I’m not exactly sure how receptive the United States is to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” novels were a big hit here but the original trilogy of films starring Noomi Rapace, terrific in the title role, seemed to get lost in Swedish translation in America. It caught fire again with David Fincher’s blistering 2011 remake starring Rooney Mara but interest in the sequels seemed to immediately fade. While I’d hoped to see a Fincher version of my favorite tale in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, that film is also half of a series that continues with the long, loborious, anti-climactic courtroom drama The Girl Who Kicked the Hornest’s Nest. Instead of starting down that road, Hollywood has skipped Larsson’s trilogy entirely and gone straight to the series’ first posthumous Larsson book – now written by David Lagercrantz – in an attempt to turn this series into a post-feminist action movie franchise. The Girl in the Spider’s Web has neither Rapace’s strong performance or Fincher’s eye for chilly crime and liquid latex while bringing nothing new to the table.
If the trilogy is known for one thing, beyond creative cruelty, it is it’s heroine Lisbeth Salander. I love Lisbeth Salander. A complicated anti-hero born out of abuse who uses her hacker skills to extract vengeance on cruel men, she is strong on the outside, broken on the inside, who tries to do what’s right while being a sexually fluid loner who would withdraw from the world entirely and watch it burn if she weren’t so compelled to save it. When people say that you don’t need a female James Bond, that you can create your own female hero, a character like Lisbeth Salander is what they’re talking about. And yet, Lisbeth is a spikey series of contradictions that doesn’t fit neatly into a mold. With The Girl in the Spider’s Web, we’re seeing a studio completely smooth down those rough edges and contradictions to make the character into a more easily digestible and replicated cookie cutter action hero.
At first, with Lisbeth’s origin behind us, I kind of liked watching her turned lose on this – a new mystery involving her father and sister and nuclear launch codes. There are flashes of the original character such as in the movie’s best scene, an opener where she gets some very tame revenge on a cheating husband or a wild sequence where she is paralyzed and then snorts drugs off the floor to snap back into action, but for the most part this isn’t Lisbeth Salander. Claire Foy’s take isn’t punk rock enough and the writing gives her nothing to lean into.
Spider’s Web is directed by Fede Alvarez, whose lean, efficient filmmaking worked for his Evil Dead remake and the minimalist horror film Don’t Breathe. He’s doing here exactly what he was hired to do, flit the movie along at a snappy pace and make it look good in the process. He does that and it’s an entirely hollow effort, without the pain, commentary, suspense, artistry and detailed mystery that normally comes with a Lisbeth Salander story. This movie feels like the result of a cigar-chomping executive who said “she rides a motorcycle – so get a motorcycle chase in there”.
It isn’t that the film is hackery, it is the natural outcome of a studio taking a story and turning it into a product to be sold. It even clocks in under a 2 hour running time as to not scare people off. But the Millennial Trilogy is a hard thing to wrestle into the same mold you would put a silent protagonist into. How complicated is John Wick or Rama from The Raid – not very. These guys are designed to be a simple and move the plot along as quickly as possible. It’s an unfortunate reality of the business – and the business that the female-representation crowd hasn’t come to terms with: you can have a complex female character or you can have a lot of movies with female characters, but you can very rarely have both.