The Girl Who Played with Fire opens to Lisbeth Salander’s (Noomi Rapace) life of leisure in the resort town where audiences last saw her at the end of the previous film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Back then, her goth industrial stylings and brooding persona seemed at odds with sun and sand — her leather too heavy to swim in, her spikes scaring away volleyballs. But the new film finds her startlingly acclimated: longer hair, fewer piercings, and even, I kid not, tan lines. Make no mistake — Lisbeth hasn’t turned into a surfer chick.
Though subtle, the change is more than superficial. A new creative team of director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg — working with Stieg Larsson’s second novel in his ridiculously popular Millenium trilogy — maintains the dark, suspenseful mood of the first film so well that you might not even notice the change of hands. But while Lisbeth was such an enigma that she seemed to blend into the shadows of the first film, The Girl Who Played with Fire illuminates her personal life, turning an already-compelling character into a surprisingly sympathetic and developed personality for such genre faire. The sunlight, it seems, has done her good.
But careful with the metaphors: illumination isn’t a stand in for sunny optimism. Like its predecessor, The Girl Who Played with Fire is at once a thriller and an exploration of deep misogyny, a combination that predictably involves sensational and disturbing violence. This time, editor Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his team at Millennium discover a sex-trafficking ring involving prominent politicians that, as they investigate, becomes ever larger in scale. But what seems like a distant international conspiracy soon becomes incredibly personal, as Lisbeth’s past, as well as her present safety, are revealed to be inextricably connected to the investigation. It’s a masterful move, keeping the audience personally invested in the mystery while also establishing a clear connection between the institutional, systematic exploitation of women and the personal acts of hate against them.
The Girl Who Played with Fire never seems like an all-out war of the sexes, though. While the bad guys sure do hate women, the rest are pretty fond of them. The journalist who brought the story to Mikael Blomkvist’s attention swoons when his girlfriend, a PhD student in women and gender studies, shows him her completed thesis on sexual exploitation. It’s typical of the formidable female characters that populate the film; even the girl you thought was cast as an excuse to show a steamy lesbian sex scene turns out to be a talented kickboxer.
And, of course, there’s the delightfully undefined relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael. In most other pulp, you’d expect them to reunite, she — unable to resist the fact that he, you know, has a penis — leaving her girlfriend immediately. Instead, they barely email, let alone meet. Yet there’s more intimacy here as they investigate independently at a distance than there ever was when they shared a bed.
It’s touches like these that make The Girl Who Played with Fire something more than the sum of its car chases, punch-outs, and plot twists, which, while entertaining, aren’t exceptional. With characters like Lisbeth and Mikael involved, though, it’s easy to feel as if they were.