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Another Dark Night of the Soul

And in the case of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, it’s an exceptionally long one.

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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.  

The single arresting image in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and draggiest film in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, is Noomi Rapace as the damaged, bisexual, heavily pierced cybergirl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander—but only in the last half-hour (of two and a half), when she hauls herself out of her hospital bed and dresses for her attempted-murder trial. Rapace has a striking face to begin with, all sharp angles and flat planes, and for court she wears a towering mohawk and nose ring, her eyes and lips rimmed in black, looking like a cross between Grace Jones and Edward Scissorhands. Among these pale old Swedes, this statue-still icon of racial and sexual transgression leaps out of the screen. But talk about all dressed up with nowhere to go—it’s like Halloween night on C-Span.

I’m not a fan of the late Larsson’s prose (or that of his quasi-English translator), but I can understand his books’ peculiar pull. He was that rare commercial novelist whose paranoia wasn’t driven by opportunism: His investigative-journalism career convinced him that conspiracies weren’t the stuff of theories but the bedrock of a malevolent social order. And he saw women—when they weren’t jumping into bed with his alter ego, the indefatigable Larsson-like aging journalist Blomkvist—as especially vulnerable. In three books, every kind of predator except vampires turns up to menace Salander: buggering pedophile perverts; neo-Nazi serial sex killers; ex-KGB, burn-scarred, insanely vindictive patriarchs; and my personal favorite, a mute, Teutonic albino giant genetically impervious to pain. Buffy had it easy.

In Hornet’s Nest, the conspiracy to silence Salander reaches into the most sclerotic echelons of the Swedish government. After only one feeble assassination attempt, the bad guys totter back to their wheelchairs and respirators and try to work through bureaucratic channels. The process is a tad slow. Larsson is renowned for his attention to marginal details, which gives his prose a rambling, one-thing-after-another pace that many readers find soothing. Onscreen, the lack of acceleration makes for one of those long Scandinavian winter nights.

The first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, had a different director, Niels Arden Oplev, and at least hit its marks: The cyberhacking of Salander complemented the shoe-leather reporting of Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and vice versa, and the two outcasts’ growing bond—and their revenge on multiple foes—was reasonably fun to watch. But the next two, directed by Daniel Alfredson, are like extended footnotes. Here, as in The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander and Blomkvist have practically no contact. Imagine your favorite duos—Nick and Nora, Steed and Mrs. Peel, Beavis and Butthead—limited to one phone call and a quick wave.

Having been beaten and shot, Salander spends most of Hornet’s Nest in that hospital bed glaring in mute outrage. I don’t blame her. At the end of the last film, she took an ax to the father who tried to kill her, and now she’s being put on trial for attempted murder: The hapless secret Swedish cabal of old white men wants to put her in an asylum under the supervision of a sadistic Fascist pedophile shrink. Salander’s sympathetic surgeon tells prosecutors she’s not well enough to talk to them, so weeks go by while they sit on their hands outside her hospital room and she begins to write a memoir of her abuse. Oprah could get to her faster than these bad guys.

It almost doesn’t matter that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has so little sting. Most fans have moved on to speculation over a possible book four allegedly being held for ransom by Larsson’s girlfriend. (Watch out for albinos, babe.) There’s also that remake in production by new auteurist darling David Fincher, who in Zodiac proved that he could imbue the most insignificant bit of minutia with his patented malignancy. But does Fincher have the stuff to stiffen up Larsson’s flaccid plotting? (I consider that a macho dare.)

In the press notes for Welcome to the Rileys, the seasoned music-video director Jake Scott—son of Ridley, nephew of Tony—says he has long been “interested in doing something quite real about ordinary people.” Yikes. When a style-conscious director talks like that, it usually means you can forget about grace or lyricism or anything that might interfere with the requisite quite-real ordinariness. But Scott’s stabs at drabness don’t undo the movie—it’s pretty good. Ken Hixon’s script contrives a lot of mutual-healing set pieces and then sadly but shrewdly aborts them: That makes the drama more Chekhovian than “quite real.”

James Gandolfini plays Indianapolis plumbing-supply-store owner Doug Riley with a gentle southern accent that’s not spot-on but changes his rhythms enough to make you see him with new eyes—and rediscover his soulfulness. Riley is sunk in grief over the death of his teenage daughter, although not nearly as low as his wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), who has put herself under house arrest. On a trip to a convention in New Orleans, he wanders into a club and meets a stripper (Kristen Stewart) who calls herself Mallory. Fleeing upstairs to avoid some drunken colleagues, he does the usual sad-older-man-meets-young-whore two-step (something like, “Do you want me to suck you off?” “No, can we just talk?” etc.). But maybe because over the years we’ve seen Gandolfini get so much head from strippers, his demurral here is poignant. And Stewart is a mess. She has oily hair and a complexion that either went to hell or was made to look as if it did. She also twitches every second. It’s almost too much, but judging from her sullen, visibly uncomfortable talk-show appearances, this might represent her emotional state better than Twilight’s goody-good Bella’s. Her rapport with Leo’s Lois, moved to join her wayward husband, has that mixture of tension and ease that puts across the mother-daughter vibe without pushing it. These people seem truly at sea, settling for glimmers of hope amid the crushing quite-realness.

The title figure in the celebrity doc Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields has the supercilious deadpan of Jack Benny and a Brahmin lockjaw that seems cultivated to keep the world at an ironic distance. (He’s not a Brahmin.) His singing voice is an unsustained moan that’s hit-or-miss, but Claudia Gonson, the band’s other vocalist (and Merritt’s surrogate big sister), covers many of the cracks. For all the time they spent with Merritt, filmmakers Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara don’t get too close. But that’s part of the movie’s charm. As in his pithy, tuneful songs—many written from different perspectives, in different styles—Merritt is committed to stylizing his misery instead of boring you with it.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest
Music Box Films. R.

Welcome to the Rileys
Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
Variance Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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