Have you ever been the new kid at a school where everybody’s known each other forever and you’re a complete outsider? If you have, you know that rumors about you abound long before you show up and that first impressions are crucial, at least to your success with certain elite circles. Interlopers who are prepared for this reality can take the opportunity to carefully craft that first impression to their advantage. Or, if you’re Lisbeth Salander in the final chapter of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — entering not a cliquish new school, but a tribunal representing a legal system that is predisposed against you — you can craft it to your disadvantage.
After getting considerably banged-up in the previous installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) spends some quality time in a hospital bed and, with the help of the resourceful and untiring journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Niqvist) and her sympathetic doctor, makes a solid physical recovery, has the chance to compose an explosive autobiography under the radar before being transferred to her new maximum security digs, and even gets to eat some pizza. (Although, it’s Swedish pizza, so maybe that’s not actually a good thing.) Recuperated and reinforced, Salander makes her stone-faced courtroom entrance in full costume — fully pierced, wearing black leather, and rocking a mohawk that would make Mr. T feel inadequate. Even though she appears in stoic silence, the impression she intends to make is clear: “You want a freak? I’ll give you a freak.”
By this point, we know that Salander’s utter contempt for the “system” is well justified, and we’re used to her operating well outside of it, but now that she has to confront it directly (or, rather, operate within it), we want her to win and for the system to finally do something right by her. Because of this, the effect of her bite-me attitude is, for the first time, troubling. Yeah, the system is corrupt, and yeah, she has no reason to give it any respect or to lose her own by pandering to it, but shouldn’t she at least try to get justice for herself? Thankfully, she does try — with a doggedly constant advocate in Blomkvist, who even convinces his own sister to be Salander’s lawyer — and watching them argue for fairness and sanity is the film’s primary concern. Well, that, and whether or not they’ll succeed. But the precedent set by their game-changing maneuvers in the previous two films should be a strong indicator of where the final chapter of their story is heading.
It’s not the demanding of justice that’s so interesting about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and the trilogy in general, or even that justice is attained in such spectacularly gratifying fashion — rather, it’s that this oft-employed Hollywood motif itself is so intriguing here. True, many people just like a good revenge fantasy, but the struggle for justice in the Millennium story is more compelling than that. A preliminary investigation of the late Stieg Larsson, author of the bestselling novels on which the movies are based, reveals that he was a man for whom righting his society’s wrongs against women was a pressing concern. More than that, it was deeply personal. According to an article in New Statesman earlier this year, Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth when he was a young teen, and he never forgave himself for not intervening. Given that his novels featuring Salander were written in his spare time outside of his career in journalism, and that Salander — a smart, competent, kickboxing hacker extraordinaire — gets to handily avenge sensational misogynist violence both in her own defense and in the defense of women at large, it might not be a stretch to say that the catharsis we feel when she wins is Larsson’s own.
Of course, no one but Larsson’s ghost could tell us what he truly felt. But my interpretation is that Larsson was driven by a deep desire to see the wrongs of reality righted through fiction and to impart to the public a sense of urgency in addressing the presence of misogyny in society. Whether or not this is accurate, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a satisfying finale to the filmic saga. Even if it doesn’t afford much in the way of character development and is much more businesslike than its predecessors, the actors and director Daniel Alfredson (who also directed The Girl Who Played With Fire) continue the films’ tradition of an understated delivery of rather sensational material. If you’ve enjoyed watching it unfold, you’ll enjoy watching it wrap up. In fact, you’d probably be pretty annoyed if Hornet’s Nest didn’t turn out the way it does.
A tidy conclusion to a fictional thriller, when it deals with a very untidy real world issue, can give us some cause for concern. The author of the New Statesman article, Laurie Penny, makes the fair point that it’s problematic to sensationalize violence against women, even, and especially, if your position on the issue is that misogyny is real, systemic, and should be stopped. After all, most real life misogyny isn’t so clear cut or cinematic and is thus much easier to overlook. Most real life women aren’t superheroes who can put their oppressors down so stylishly. Which leads us to the question: is it helpful to blend such a serious societal problem with triumphant, oversimplified fantasy? If the objective is to make audiences pay attention to that problem by luring them in with the fantasy, then the answer might be yes. There’s no denying that the films are pulpy, not least of all in the extremes of their darkness and catharsis, and you could argue that the pulpiness detracts from the anti-misogyny message. But you could also say that it’s that unsubtle combination of the bleak and the feel-good that is the stories’ genius. Did the films succeed in making any tangible headway in the cause against misogyny? Maybe not. But they may have brought it to the attention of a broader audience — one that may not have already been particularly concerned about it — and made sure that audience would be persuaded firmly against it. Sometimes people need things sensationalized and oversimplified in order to get the point. Just ask that guy who made Avatar.