6 out of 10
Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander
Directed by Fede Álvarez
The Girl in the Spider’s Web Review:
Is there anything more infuriating than something that seems like it should work, but doesn’t? All of the elements are there on paper, and more or less the right order, but somehow there is no magic. The adventures of Stieg Larsson’s uber-heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Foy), are as good a case study as any. The main character is interesting and exciting with a complex back story though perhaps not easily insertable into any plot. The creators continuing her adventures (in print and on screen) are capable craftsmen who have done their homework and are trying their hardest to produce something interesting rather than just take advantage of a known quantity. And yet within all this math there is no magic.
Salander, the genius Swedish hacker with a horrific backstory (it involves justifiably setting her father on fire at age 7), returns when a computer scientist (Merchant) hires her to retrieve a piece of software he wrote for the NSA. Defeating the United States watchdogs with ease, Lisbeth soon finds herself on the run from a far deadlier adversary, a Russian criminal syndicate known as the Spiders. Somehow always one step ahead of her, Lisbeth has no choice to seek out her occasional comrade-in-arms, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason). Trying to find the mind behind the Spiders, and figure out how they know her so well, sends Lisbeth diving back into a past she’d rather forget … and face-to-face with her long lost sister (Hoeks).
And perhaps Web’s biggest problem lies right there, before anyone has chance to offer any other creative spins on the film. Each of the first three Girl stories (from now deceased creator Larsson) dealt with the intersection of Salander’s past with the dark side of Swedish industry and government, forcing her to confront both. Faced with creating new Salander stories author David Lagercrantz (on whose book the screenplay by Álvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight is based) has decided to focus on … the intersection of Salander’s past with the dark side of Swedish industry and government. Like so many franchises and series, the limits of what a Salander story can be have been set at the start and now are re-arranging the coefficients of the equation such that the formula looks slightly different but the sum is always the same.
It’s not the best environment to foster creativity in and like so many skilled artists in similar straits, the craftsmen caught in the Spider’s Web struggle mightily to get free of it. In fact, watching the finished product is like nothing so much as a doomed animal thrashing about trying to reclaim its life before slowly sinking into the mire. Not to say it doesn’t have its pleasures. Foy is a gifted actress and Salander remains the kind of role that offers a lot for actresses to dive into what with her mixture of anti-social reflexes and desire to for some sort of human connection. It’s not a coincidence that both of the previous actresses who took on the role received critical praise and awards for it. They say great roles make great performances and Foy may well outdo her Girl compatriots, jettisoning Salander’s angst for a more deep-seated pain she can’t seem to put a finger on much less deal with.
In that sense Director Álvarez is the perfect partner for her. Anyone who has seen his previous thriller’s, particularly the claustrophobic Don’t Breathe, knows how skilled he is at ratcheting up tension. Working with the Salander world, Álvarez brings a steady eye for pace and mood. Salander’s introduction, though burgeoning on the superhero-esque, tells us everything we need to know about her with the bare minimum or dialogue or setup. Likewise the assault on Balder and his child frequently undercuts expectations while playing up pathos in the best of ways. Only the confrontation with Camilla herself, unfortunately, falls short stuck inside a dingy bathroom with everyone wearing similar outfits and face covering gasmask which leaves events a confusing mess. That’s more of an outlier than anything else, Álvarez is too skilled a craftsman to deliver anything other than polished techno thrills
But he and everyone else are working in a strait jacket. They are constrained by the needs to make this a certain kind of film; even streamlining much of Lagercrantz’s novel can’t get rid of those weaknesses entirely. Camilla (played by Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks, also the weakest part of that film) is a non-entity, left the background in order to encourage surprise but at the expense of any sort of character understanding. She is the opposite of Lisbeth is the best anyone can come up with, but it’s a shallow opposition, one that stops at her blonde hair and red clothes. Like the rest of Spider’s Web, and so many disappointing thrillers before it, she’s all surface gloss with nothing underneath.