In “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the final book in the late Stieg Larsson’s international bestselling Millennium Trilogy, the Swedish author torques up the mental chess and tones down the action. And so it is in the film from director Daniel Alfredson, who delivers an extremely satisfying ending to the story of Lisbeth Salander, the tough Swedish cyber punk that actress Noomi Rapace has turned into an iconic New Age heroine.
Alfredson, who picked up directing duties with the second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” uses the tonal switch to get us far closer to the enigma of a character so burned by life, so darkly brooding, that she keeps human connections and communication to a maddening minimum. In “Hornet’s Nest,” the director again proves he’s not afraid of silence and in Rapace, he has an actor who knows exactly what to do, and not do, with it.
The film opens with Lisbeth clinging to life, a bullet in her head, put there by the hulking, murderous half-brother she never knew she had. Screenwriter Ulf Ryberg rests the narrative on her hospital recovery, prison stay and courtroom drama rather than the fast-moving, bone-crunching fights, bloody shootouts and the brutal rape that characterized and popularized the first two films. That decision helps tease out the social issues that were sometimes lost in the early films, which were otherwise fairly traditional thrillers.
It turns out to be a savvy way to retain the tension while going about the complicated business of tying up the many threads of Lisbeth’s story. Part of the genius of all three adaptations is the way in which the writers (Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg on the first, Jonas Frykberg on the second) have stripped everything down to the bare essentials, reducing Larsson’s densely detailed plot and rising pyramid of interlocking characters to focus on Lisbeth’s story.
The films’ other central character, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (portrayed with a steady intelligence by well-known Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist), is a shadow of the man Larsson envisioned; his editor and sometime lover Erika Berger (Lena Endre) even more so. But with Lisbeth in confined spaces here, the filmmakers have given the characters more room to breathe. Nyqvist and Endre make the most of it, with Endre’s heat playing well against Nyqvist’s chill.
In the first two films, Lisbeth’s great skills, beyond the computer hacking genius that serves as both weapon and wall in her life, are her hand-to-hand combat chops, surprisingly brutal for a waif, and her ability to disappear without a trace. By forcing her to stay in frame — as she recovers in the hospital, builds her strength back in the prison cell and confronts her demons in the courtroom — Alfredson begins to remove all that she has used to hide behind.
Rapace moves through the escalating exposure with a series of subtle shifts that are both painful and exquisite to watch. The actress can make eye contact seem like salt in an open wound. Never has Lisbeth had to rely so heavily on others and never has Rapace channeled her tortured past better. And yet the filmmakers counter any vulnerability in a dramatic courtroom showdown where Lisbeth’s heavily pierced body, severely spiked mohawk and preference for studded leather serves as a visual and conceptual attack on Sweden’s culture of conformity, long a target of Larsson’s.
Indeed, the film’s spine-tingling edge comes from the gathering evil forces, history’s legacy. The secret, government-funded espionage unit that protected her Russian defector father is back with several of its top agents coming out of retirement. With their canes, mottled skin and dialysis treatments, they crystallize a Larsson theme — that such nefarious Cold-War tactics have outlived their time.
On a separate front is the half-brother, Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), a monster whose genetic misprint means that he literally feels no pain, and if nothing else, his presence ensures there will be blood and action. But the best of the bad is Dr. Peter Teleborian, the psychiatrist who oversaw Lisbeth’s twisted “treatment” when she was institutionalized at 12. Anders Ahlbom gives Teleborian a disturbingly soothing duplicity made all the more chilling the more we learn.
In keeping with the idea of Lisbeth’s captivity, cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski creates a cool, minimalist sensibility, stripped as bare as the story. It complements the confident efficiency Alfredson brings to the production.
Through it all, you feel the echoes of the earlier films rippling through “Hornet’s Nest” — the dragon tattoo crawling up the spine of the sinewy outsider, the searing flames of abuse that continue to burn, a journalist’s solitary fight for justice — so that when the end does come, elegant in its understatement, it feels exactly as it should be. You can almost believe it would make Lisbeth smile. Almost.