The art of the thriller lies in putting the audience into the character’s state of mind, which is usually a state of panic while they’re chasing down leads in a murder mystery or trying to avoid death themselves. It’s all about getting your heart rate elevated through the most visceral scenes.
I’ve enjoyed thrillers across genres like science fiction (like the thrills of Ghost in the Shell) and fantasy (as in The Acts of Caine), but the straight-up thrillers are something else. My favorite films are the first three Bourne movies starring Matt Damon, but lately I’ve come to appreciate another set of thriller films: the Millennium Trilogy, which was adapted from the bestselling novels by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
Having finally watched all three of the original Swedish films, I decided to give the whole trilogy a proper in-depth review.
Part I: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Plot: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired to investigate the 40-year-old case of a missing girl named Harriet Vanger, whom her uncle suspects was murdered. While his path leads him into conflict with suspects among the Vanger family, Mikael also makes the acquaintance of Lisbeth Salander, an 24-year-old elite hacker with a brutal past. Together, they form an unlikely partnership in investigating this cold case and trying to bring a serial killer to justice.
The Hook: The story switches back and forth between Mikael and Lisbeth, balancing the former’s innocence with the latter’s cynicism. Unfortunately, both characters go through hell to get what they want, including an extremely vivid rape scene for Lisbeth. But the rest of the film impressively pulls on layers and layers of intrigue and depravity, revealing just how twisted some of the Vanger family is and creating a solid foundation for the reveal behind Harriet’s disappearance. Noomi Rapace steals every scene in the film as Lisbeth, bringing this tattooed Valkyrie to life with cold but meaningful glares. While it’s the longest film in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does an excellent job of introducing us to Lisbeth, Mikael, and the dark world in which they live.
Part II: The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Plot: A year has passed since the events of the previous film. While Mikael investigates the people behind an Eastern European sex trade operation, several of his contacts turn up dead, with Lisbeth framed for their murder. After becoming a fugitive, Lisbeth tries to help Mikael investigate the conspiracy from a distance, all while coming closer to a terrible confrontation with a man from her past.
The Hook: Compared to the first film, this sequel is much more action-packed, with a higher body count and scenes of Lisbeth getting the drop on unsuspecting targets. We learn a lot more about Lisbeth’s past and enjoy a heartwarming moment with her former guardian Holmger Palmgren (played by the late Per Oscarsson), as he recovers from a stroke. The runtime is about half an hour shorter, but the pacing is a lot stronger in this film, keeping the flow from exposition to action to recovery pretty smooth. It’s a much stronger thriller overall.
Part III: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
The Plot: Following the events of The Girl Who Played with Fire, our story begins with Lisbeth and her father in the hospital, recovering from their severe injuries and awaiting police interrogation. When Zalachenko’s fellow conspirators decide to silence him, the race is on to uncover the full extent of a shadowy group in the Security Services called “The Section” and thwart their attempts to discredit Lisbeth’s rape accusations and Mikael’s evidence in court.
The Hook: While it goes back to a slower, more deliberate pacing like in the first film, what separates the third film is the emotional weight piled up in every scene. We get to see the culmination of a relationship between Mikael and his longtime partner Erika, along with Lisbeth’s confrontation with another old enemy, the cruel Dr. Teleborian. It’s also noteworthy how the film’s antagonists are mostly old men trying to cover their tracks, which contrasts with the youth and energy of characters like Lisbeth and Mikael’s sister Annika (who acts as Lisbeth’s defense attorney). And while Lisbeth doesn’t act directly until the very end, she does prove to be more valuable as an icon around which the film revolves, a symbol against “The Section” and their crimes.
Bibliography: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (film). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Produced by Søren Stærmose. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Perf. Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace. Yellow Bird (studio); Music Box Films; Alliance Films; Lumiere; GAGA. Nordisk Film. Original release date: February 27, 2009.
The Girl Who Played With Fire (film). Directed by Daniel Alfredson. Produced by Søren Stærmose and Jon Mankell. Screenplay by Ulf Rydberg. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Perf. Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace. Yellow Bird (studio). Zodiak Entertainment. Original release date: September 18, 2009.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (film). Directed by Daniel Alfredson. Produced by Søren Stærmose and Jon Mankell. Screenplay by Ulf Rydberg and Jonas Frykberg. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson. Perf. Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace. Yellow Bird (studio); Nordisk Film. Zodiak Entertainment. Original release date: November 27, 2009.