The scriptwriters of The Girl in the Spider’s Web have turned Stieg Larsson’s compelling and complex Lisbeth Salander into a franchise-seeking action hero – and squandered the talent of Claire Foy in the process
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (15) *
Assassination Nation (18) ***
Shoplifters (15) ****
Vacuum-packing more stupidity into two hours than a mid-period Bond flick, The Girl in the Spider’s Web dumbs down everything that was great or interesting about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series and turns it into a grim, self-serious, avenging angel-style comic book fantasy. A soft reboot of David Fincher’s underappreciated adaptation of Larsson’s first book in the Millennium trilogy, and based on David Lagercrantz’s contentious 2015 novel continuing the series, the new film replaces Rooney Mara with Clare Foy as “righter of wrongs” Lisbeth Salander and, as a consequence of not being able to entice Daniel Craig back either, downgrades the role of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played Sverrir Gudnason) to little more than a cameo.
As directed by Fede Alvarez (who made the trashy but effective horror film Don’t Breathe as well as the worthless Evil Dead remake), the film makes token efforts to create some continuity with the previous instalment (it still has a great Bond-riffing credit sequence). But as it sends Lisbeth on a mission to steal a piece of software designed to give the American government online control of any missile defence system, it mostly comes up woefully short in terms of the plotting, the atmosphere and the general conception of the character, squandering the more-than-capable Foy with set-piece after set-piece that undermines the tech savviness of this tech-savviest of cyber-punk heroines.
We’re expected to believe, for instance, that Salander is someone who has the skills to hack the NSA and reorientate traffic systems in the middle of a car chase, yet doesn’t have the foresight to have her hipster dockside Batcave alarmed up the wazoo on the off chance that some bad guys might break in while she’s taking a bath. Later on, as the film detours into the plot of duff Bruce Willis thriller Mercury Rising, Lisbeth allows the savant-like kid she’s supposed to be protecting to have access to an easily trackable smart phone, ensuring that the climax hinges on the ability of the villain (played by The Square’s Claes Bang) to use the equivalent of the Find My iPhone app.
That’s just lazy screenwriting (the script is credited to Alvarez, Jay Basu and a should-know-better Steven Knight) and the film is full of clangers like these. But that’s not even the worst thing about it. The film betrays Lisbeth even further by delving into her traumatic childhood to provide an easy-to-understand explanation for her vigilantism, allowing it to avoid having to deal with the complexity of having a non-binary protagonist existing in a very binary world. The end result feels like a non-threatening, very watered-down version of a kick-ass female action heroine, the kind that can be easily exploited in a franchise. That’s the last thing this character should be at this moment in time.
Horror movie satire Assassination Nation, on the other hand, offers a much more entertaining treatise on sexual politics in the age of social media by imagining what the Salem witch trials might look like for young women living in Trump’s America. Set in a town called Salem (it’s not a subtle movie), the first half does a pretty good job of recreating the experience of being on Twitter in the middle of an outrage pile-on as a number of high-profile people in the town have their private data hacked and made publicly available while everyone else gleefully affects moral outrage or just enjoys the schadenfreude of seeing people they don’t even know get some sort of comeuppance. It makes for pretty hateful viewing in other words, something not helped by having the film’s narrator, Lily (Odessa Young), and her best friends Sara (Suki Waterhouse), Em (Abra) and Bex (played by transgender actor Hari Nef) among the too-cool-for-school teens marvelling at anyone still decrying the loss of privacy. But as the Anonymous-style hacker reveals everyone’s secrets, the second half of the film transforms into something more akin to The Purge as the residents of Salem start to suspect Lily and co of being behind the hack and take it upon themselves to hunt them down. What follows is lurid and provocative in the way that good B-movies often are and though writer/director Sam Levinson has clearly imbibed Natural Born Killers-era Oliver Stone’s approach to cultural satire, it’s an approach that feels apropos for the times.
Modern Japanese master Koreeda Horkazu (Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister) delves once more into the complexities of family life with his Palme d’Or-winner Shoplifters, this time focusing on a makeshift family of small-time criminals hustling to get by while also holding down poorly paid jobs in which they themselves are clearly being exploited. The catalyst for the ensuing drama is their “kidnapping” of a little girl they take in to save from what seems like an abusive home life, but the brilliance of the film comes from the way Koreeda quietly and non-judgmentally observes this clan up close as they care for and look out for one another before gradually pulling back to reveal the true nature of their various relationships. Like his other films, it’s deceptively gentle, full of beautifully nuanced performances (as the family’s “grandmother”, Koreeda regular Kiki Kirin is typically sublime) and boasting a cumulative emotional power that lingers long after the credits roll. ■