The Girl in the Spider's Web
Directed by Fede Álvarez
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a cold and stylish new thriller from director Fede Alvarez (who also resurrected the Evil Dead franchise with his 2013 remake), is a big improvement over the 2015 novel on which it’s based – but that’s to be expected when the novel is written for the sole purpose of becoming a movie.
It improves upon the source material by minimizing the role of the novel's central character (the heroic, dashing, coffee-guzzling investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist) and focusing instead on the hacker punk hero Lisbeth Salander, embodied on the screen this time by Claire Foy (following Noomi Rapace and Roony Mara), who earlier this year gave a wonderfully frantic performance in Steven Soderbergh’s twisty, iPhone-shot, underappreciated horror flick Unsane. Here, again, she’s clearly giving her all (two claustrophobic and near-balletic action sequences shine a light on her knack for physical performance).
Salander is a terrific character who works well in the first novel of the Millennium series, The Girl with the Dagon Tattoo, but proves in later volumes to be only so interesting as the plot she’s unravelling – a fact that both her creator, the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (who died before any of his three novels were published), and her current author, David Lagerctantz, seem to understand, often pushing her to the margins of the story while the publisher flaunts her name all over the jacket copy.
Though the Blomkvist character – an impassioned middle-aged intellectual in the novel who’s portrayed, in this film, as a gorgeous young dude-in-distress – is the person who steers us through the novels’ intricate plots, Alvarez has wisely chosen to re-shape this volume’s silly premise – about an autistic boy, also aphasic, who’s got a savant’s savviness for math and drawing and who’s gifted, too, with a photographic memory – and to train the camera on Salander, instead, as she runs and jumps and punches her way through a hacker plot about nuclear launch codes, a nexus of intrigue and betrayal, that brings her face to face with her bleach-blond twin, played by Sylvia Hoeks, who dresses in an impractical blood-red pantsuit that cuts a gorgeous contrast against the climax’s gothic, woodsy, snow-packed mountain terrain.
It’s hard to tell if the movie is aware of how ridiculous it is, if there’s supposed to be a wink in the way that Salander will have strategized a long sequence of events in a crowded airport so as to liberate a prisoner, elude police, and coerce an adversary into joining her team – obscuring herself in surging crowds, controlling digital locks from her phone, communicating with several different people via cell phone. She knows to dive into a flooded bathtub as an explosion rips through her loft but, as the camera joins her underwater to show (from a cool angle) the unceasing fireball billowing just over the water’s surface, it seems the director didn’t give much thought to how she escapes. So it happens offscreen.
And that’s fine! How do James Bond or Inspector Clouseau or John McClane or Frank Drebben escape a problem? Usually some blend of instinct, genius, superhuman brawn and a long chain of impossibly good fortune.
It’s the stuff movies are made of.
While David Fincher’s beautifully visceral adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made for a fine film in 2009, it was decidedly a stand-alone work. Not at all the kind of storytelling for which a general audience will turn out, again and again, as the franchise unfolds.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, though decidedly sillier than Fincher’s interpretation, is worthy of its own kind of celebration. Alvarez seems here to have cracked the code for how to translate these novels to the screen: he’s figured the mood, the pacing, and the way to favor Salander (the true hero of the series) without saturating the audience. Like with 007 franchise, this one gives us a swift thriller full of sex, political intrigue, a disposable plot and a memorable villain.
And, same as with Bond, it’d be a delight to turn out for another one of these every couple years
Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.