Film Review: The Girl in the Spider's Web

Claire Foy is the new hacker heroine in a smartly rebooted adventure.
Major Releases

That girl with the dragon tattoo is back and badder than ever, in a secret-agent story that’s part Bond, part bondage.

Of course, this mystery series has always had a taste for kink; it was never enough that its villainous masterminds were sadists, they had to be perverts, too. And they’re a big part of this film, which features creepily abusive parents, sexually violent husbands and assorted other monsters, all with a fondness for trussing up their prey.

And cutting those cords is Lisbeth Salander, the punky hacker who’s determined to get genuine justice for all.

It’s a welcome return. The franchise got off to an impressive start with Sweden’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2009 with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Two more adventures followed, but the plots weren’t as riveting, nor was Lisbeth as central.

And when Hollywood got interested, all it could think of was simply remaking the first film in English, a 2011 thriller with Rooney Mara now in the lead. It was stylish—it was a David Fincher film, after all—but it provided nothing new.

The Girl in the Spider’s Webdoes.

That’s because it’s based on the fourth book in the series—written by David Lagercrantz, after original series author Stieg Larsson died—and it fills in some more of Lisbeth’s backstory. We learn more about her sick father, and about her childhood, and why she is the way she is. It also orients the series more towards escapist adventure, rather than personal psychodrama.

It does that by providing Lisbeth with her biggest challenge yet—a 007-sized story in which a top-secret weapons program has been stolen. To be fair, it was Lisbeth who first stole it—but now it’s been grabbed from her and she has to get it back, before it gets sold to the highest bidder.

Let the high-speed motorcycle chases, kick-butt martial arts and incredibly complicated computer hacking begin.

Although it helps to know a little bit going in—particularly that Lisbeth and crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist once had a relationship—it’s not necessary. Apart from that detail, and a few characters, this is a complete reboot, with new stars and a new director.

All are at least as good as their predecessors. As Lisbeth, Claire Foy is absolutely fierce and completely unstoppable, a woman who’s put her emotions aside but remembers where they’re locked away. She’s both liberated and completely unlabeled, and the film works hard to protect that independence—although she has a sex life, she’s never exploited or objectified by the film.

She’s so formidable, in fact, that sometimes you wonder why she even needs Blomkvist around. She’s a software genius who can control an airport’s entire security system from her cellphone—and she needs a magazine reporter to do her legwork? His character remains a pulp convention—a love interest—who never has any other real purpose (although at least this film gives Lisbeth a more youthful and attractive Blomkvist in Sverrir Gudnason.)

There’s also a spookily fine menace in Sylvia Hoeks, a blinding vision with near-platinum hair, barely visible eyebrows and a blood-red coat. Sometimes her super-villain status gets pushed a little too hard—as when trying to merely catch Lisbeth, she has an entire bathroom rigged with a paralyzing vapor and then dispatches henchmen in gas masks (a simple bop in the head was too easy?). But that just emphasizes the super-spy feeling of it all.

Which, admitted, may turn off some dedicated fans of the original novels. Those early books were rooted in both widespread cultural misogyny and Sweden’s modern political struggle; they had a more serious tone (and Lisbeth was definitely a more seriously damaged person) than the more straightforward thriller, and heroine, presented here.

Yet even with these occasional over-the-top trappings, director Fede Alvarez—getting a high-stakes assignment after his successes with Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe—is careful to keep this new movie rooted in some kind of reality.

He has his own visual weaknesses—picturesquely abandoned buildings with holes in their roofs, fluttering birds that seem to have flown in from an old John Woo movie. Yet he handles the action sequences with both energy and at least an attempt at realism—when Lisbeth gets battered, she stays looking battered.

And there are a few bonus treats throughout, like Lakeith Stanfield as an American agent with an attitude, or a chase scene that has a desperate Lisbeth racing her Bugatti bike across a barely frozen lake.

It may be true that, after all these years, some of the freshness of this character is gone—we’ve gotten used to the chopped-off hair and piercings, the insta-hacking, the ultra-feminist vengeance. (In fact, this movie has to work really hard to come up with a new bit of sexual deviancy, too—let’s just say a vacuum is involved.)

But Foy and Alvarez have still spun the old and new elements together in an effective web. If this is a trap, it’s one you won’t hurry to escape from—or even fear being caught in again.