Lisbeth Salander can finally wipe the blood off her face. After being repeatedly beaten and raped, tied up like a pig being prepped for the knife and shot one, two, three times (in one go), the little woman with the large tattoo can sit back in her cool digs and enjoy a much deserved smoke. It’s been a long time coming, literally, what with seven hours of art house pulp craziness — Nazis and child molesters, an evil psychiatrist and a prostitution ring — which, among other things, proves that women in trouble never go out of style.
These days a miraculously timed e-mail is more apt to come to a damsel’s rescue than the cavalry, but whether she’s Pauline in peril or Lisbeth, danger is familiar business for women. Familiar and lucrative, to judge by the popularity of the books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — and the movies that followed.
The latest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, was directed by Daniel Alfredson. There’s also that girl, the genius computer hacker played by Noomi Rapace. Although bulkier and older than Larsson’s pin-weight creation, Rapace over the course of the three movies has made this tricky, irresistible character her own, a particularly noteworthy achievement given that Lisbeth (who might be autistic) leans to degrees of expressive inexpressiveness. With her hard gaze and underlying menace, Rapace — with Salander as her guide — holds your attention in these mostly unmemorable movies. Particularly crucial is her punishingly physical performance, which underscores that this is very much a story about what some men do to women’s bodies.
Salander’s own body receives some of the worst abuse. The last time we saw her, she had planted an ax in her father’s head, but only after she was shot three times (by dear old Dad) and buried (by her semimutant half-brother). As it turns out, all unhappy families really are unhappy in their own way: When she was 12, the precociously capable Salander torched her father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a Soviet spy turned wife beater and sex trafficker, with very powerful Swedish friends. Hoping to protect her mother, the daughter barbecues her father, leading to Salander’s longtime institutionalization. She enters the most recent movie as slicked in gore as Mel Gibson’s Jesus, whose torment and resurrection she parallels.
The Hornet’s Nest feels very much like the concluding chapter it is, with neatly tied loose ends and closing remarks, if one that plays out as something of a secular passion play. That Lisbeth has been nearly martyred again and again in a crucible of male violence is part of the trilogy’s kink and probably a large part of its appeal. Unfortunately for those who like to see Salander in flamboyant action, she spends much of this movie confined first in a hospital and then in jail, where she prepares for the court trial that will seal her fate partly by working out like a wee Travis Bickle. For her, life has been defined by continuous suffering and raging battles with enemies fought on all fronts: mental, physical, technological and legal.
If she needs every resource at her disposal, it’s because the sins, individual and institutional, of the father, or rather fathers, weighed heavily on the trilogy. The overarching narrative is filled with the evil that men do to women — wives, daughters, prostitutes, even unlucky female passersby. But the villains aren’t simply isolated rogues, as they tend to be in US movies; they’re also systems of oppression, ranging from the nominally personal (abusive parent and child) to the overtly political (oppressed citizen and state). For her part, Salander might be a loner but she believes in collective action, waging war with the help of a few good men, chiefly Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, reliably appealing), an activist left-wing journalist.
Like the earlier movies, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest trades on the spectacle of female suffering, including a repeat of the ghastly rape in the first flick. At the same time, as in certain slasher films from the 1970s and high-end thrillers that borrow from a similar horror playbook, the violence against women in the Millennium movies is answered by a young woman, the one whose bad attitude is as unapologetic as that of any male avenger. Salander hits (and sometimes shoots) back and never says sorry. Every so often, she responds to some violence with a small, mean smile that the camera makes sure to capture. There’s satisfaction in that smile, maybe cynicism, but no evident moral complexity.
Alfredson directed the second movie as well, and his work is again essentially functional, limited to clumsy action sequences and television-ready conversations. He doesn’t prettify violence in either movie, which might be unintentional but makes them feel more honest than the first did. That more visually ambitious effort, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, softened all the ugliness with haunted, wintry tableaus, whereas Alfredson makes do with a Stockholm that hardly conveys a noir nightmare. It looks so banal, which — with the hot, bisexual babe and heroic leftist journalist — might explain why a revenge fantasy as crudely plotted, disreputably pleasurable and aesthetically irredeemable as any in the lower cinematic depths has made it to art houses in the US. There, payback seems so civilized.