The Girl in the Spider’s Web’s very existence is awkward. For the unfamiliar, it’s the latest American entry in the Millennium ‘saga’, based on Stieg Larsson’s hugely successful – and posthumously published – trilogy of crime novels. This trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – were adapted in their native language in Sweden, with David Fincher’s adaptation of the first book, starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, following shortly thereafter.
Despite Fincher’s film’s success – at the box offices, across awards season and with critics – the American adaptations of Fire and Hornets’ Nest never eventuated. Instead, almost a decade later, we have an adaptation of David Lagencrantz’s addition to the universe; a film that continues a story that was never told in American movies with an entirely new cast: Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander and Sverrir Gudnason as Mikael Blomkvist. As an audience member who’s never read the books, I didn’t even realise until the lights went down in the cinema that this wasn’t a sideways-sequel to Fincher’s thriller. Like I said: awkward.
To the credit of director Fede Álvarez and co-writers Steven Knight and Jay Basu, the film mostly makes sense for Millennium novitiates like myself. Álvarez swathes the film in neo-gothic chiaroscuro from the get-go; the opening scene – a flashback to Lisbeth’s abusive childhood – is so lavishly overstylised that any expectation of realism is quickly quashed. The narrative moves quickly, without any major links to previous instalments, and for a while I fell under the spell of what appeared to be a contemporary techno-thriller.
I’m an absolute sucker for this sort of movie, where noir-tinged darkness and thick atmospherics consume any kind of coherent storyline. Characters make decisions – like, say, Lisbeth agreeing to steal a nuclear hacking tool designed by Stephen Merchant’s milquetoast character – anchored purely in plot. A miscast Foy assumes a thick accent as Lisbeth, presumably in a concession to the Swedish setting, but none of her co-stars appear to have got the memo. And, look, there’s enough sleek architecture and slick cinematography for me to forgive this nonsense…for a while.
It wasn’t until around the film’s halfway point, with a twist relentlessly spoiled in the trailers – Lisbeth’s long-dead sister is alive, evil and fabulously bedecked in crimson – that I understood my encroaching dissatisfaction with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. What we have here, you see, is a classic misassignment of genre by Álvarez. The first half might promise a thick, tense thriller, but thrillers require tension – whether through a mounting sense of dread, an intimidatingly arcane plot, or just some sense of escalation. It only becomes obvious why Álvarez is dutifully plodding through his storyline, maintaining momentum but little else, when the final half of the film reveals itself to be an action film more in line with James Bond or Jason Bourne than a Fincher-esque thriller.
Again: not a problem. I’m happy for this franchise – which, again, I have precisely zero investment in – to pivot into a kind of gothic, female-led Mission: Impossible variant. But Álvarez isn’t the man for the job. His background is in horror – Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe – and he’s certainly able to translate his macabre aestheticism to the barely-lit, snowy streets and ruins of Sweden. Action movies rely on spectacle and setpieces, however, and there’s few of either on display here. We watch Bond movies to be transported to glossy locations and marvel at beautiful people, not to trudge through underlit apartment buildings in the depths of winter.
This doesn’t entirely scuttle The Girl in the Spider’s Web, I should clarify. While the supporting cast is mostly underused, the likes of Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps and my boy Lakeith Stanfield make their small roles sing. And, as though recognising the thinness of their subject material, Álvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque go out of their way to make every shot look interesting; they mostly succeed (if nothing else, the film looks expensive). The thing is, Álvarez isn’t there purely to provide an aesthetic; he’s there to direct. Sadly, direction is the one thing this film is missing. It’s crying out for tighter thriller plotting, or more action spectacle. Instead, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is tangled in an uneven mix of two immiscible genres, living up to the awkwardness of its very existence.