When it comes to filmmaking, there are particular guidelines that help filmmakers convey the story to moviegoers. The most common guideline is to follow the Three Act Structure. While it isn’t necessary to follow this formula, viewers typically appreciate it – perhaps subconsciously – because it gives them manageable blocks of information that they can access as the movie progresses to its climactic finish. Information management is even more important across a series of films with an overarching plot because each film must account for the time in between movies as well as new viewers coming into the middle of the series without having seen the previous segments. The Girl Who Played with Fire eschews catering to new viewers and aggressively assumes that everyone watching this film has seen the previous episode The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That being said, fans of the first film will most likely be disappointed in this sequel while newcomers will watch in semi-bewilderment.
Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has been living comfortably abroad on her ill-gotten gains from the previous episode for close to two years. Unfortunately, she can’t escape the nightmares of her rape by her current legal guardian who she is blackmailing in order to receive positive reports so that she can be released from her conservatorship status. To make sure that her guardian is keeping up his end of the arrangement, Lisbeth returns to her old life to pay him a visit. Unfortunately, Lisbeth isn’t the only one who’s stopped by. A mysterious man, representing interested parties with obvious evil ends in mind, also visits the guardian in order to locate Lisbeth.
Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is working with a new investigative journalist at Millennium, regarding a sex trafficking ring. When the new journalist and his girlfriend are murdered, there’s compelling evidence that Lisbeth is the killer. Now Mikael must prove Lisbeth’s innocence before the authorities find her and Lisbeth must find out who framed her and why. Along the way, old enemies will resurface and terrible pasts will be revealed.
To reiterate: viewers who have seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will appreciate this film the most. In fact, it’s almost necessary. The filmmakers barely do any foundational work to establish who the characters are within the story and in relation to each other before the film moves on to the main plot. Characters that made small appearances or were simply briefly mentioned in the first film are given larger roles here without any sort of preamble or introduction. So when Lisbeth visits Holger Palmgren many viewers may be wondering who he is – not knowing that he was Lisbeth’s previous guardian. Since Fire and Tattoo are necessarily tied together in this manner, it’s only natural to compare the two films.
Tattoo did an excellent job of presenting a story that was both character and plot driven. Living with Lisbeth was so satisfying and the mystery so engaging that it seemed almost miraculous that a happy marriage could come from the two aspects. Fire also offers more insight into Lisbeth’s life while also providing an interesting mystery, but handles the execution differently. Throughout the film, Lisbeth is constantly discovering more clues that lead her closer to the shady people trying to find her, but she doesn’t share those clues with the audience. Instead, it’s up to Mikael to piece together her motivations while being one step behind Lisbeth all along. This plot-with-stem-winder convention is interesting, but can sometimes lead to confusion when audiences watch Lisbeth go someplace or do something without fully understanding why until Mikael comes along to explain it.
Despite having a different director, Fire still maintains the plain yet visceral style of Tattoo. It’s always remarkable when the gravity of a scene is allowed to breathe without having the direction call attention to itself. Audiences will no doubt feel less like moviegoers and more like voyeurs watching life happen before their eyes.
The acting is as natural as ever and fans of Tattoo will be relieved to find that the actors have all retained their characters. There are moments, however, when characters behave in unexpected ways – especially towards the end – but those instances are rare. It also bears mentioning that it’s refreshing to see working actors who look like normal people, without perfectly sculpted bodies and faces.
To be clear, The Girl Who Played with Fire is in no way, shape or form within the realm of bad movies. Regrettably, it begs to be compared to its predecessor and falls short of its greatness. The other glaring issue is its ending that leaves audiences with questions that have simple answers if only the filmmakers weren’t purposefully withholding them to get audiences to watch the next installment. If the next film is as dependent on The Girl Who Played with Fire as this film was on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo then fans of the series definitely need to watch this movie.