The best thing about The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in a series of Swedish movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novels, is Noomi Rapace, who plays the title character. It's the same role she played masterfully in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and she's even better at it here. The worst thing about the movie is what happens to her in it. In between, there's a pretty good thriller that's stained by sexual violence.
It's not an entirely unfamiliar conundrum: The most direct way for a writer or director to demonstrate that a female character is strong is to do terrible, terrible things to her. So on one hand you can say that the creative triumvirate behind the trilogy—Larsson and directors Niels Arden Oplev (Tattoo) and Daniel Alfredson (Fire and the forthcoming third installment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)—deserves some credit for creating a formidable female lead role and a character who can endure what they put her through. On the other hand, what she's put through is so awful, so drawn out, and so ruthlessly depicted that you suspect their motives might be a little bit more prurient than they seem at first.
The Girl Who Played With Fire starts a couple of years after the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Rapace, as the troubled Swedish computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, has just returned to Stockholm—with a ton of cash—after a brief escape to the Caribbean. Her sometime-partner, both professional and sexual, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), is digging into a nasty sex-trafficking ring, a story that could rattle some of Sweden's most powerful men. As his reporting gains momentum, Lisbeth's legal guardian, who's connected to the case, turns up dead—and she's the prime suspect. Mikael starts hounding the police and conducting his own frantic investigation to clear her name; Lisbeth runs a parallel investigation from the shadows, tracking Mikael through his computer and nudging him along with cyber-clues when she can. She also searches through her own past, trying to untangle the knot that connects her to the crimes.
And things get worse from there. A lot worse. A giant strongman (Mikael Spreitz), straight out of a James Bond movie, circles through both storylines, and his connection to Lisbeth is even scarier than his capacity for violence. That connection anchors the whole movie: His presence tugs Mikael and Lisbeth together—they don't meet until the very end, when it's almost too late—to the point where her past and his sex-ring investigation converge.
Alfredson's direction is tight and lean, and Rapace delivers a heroic performance. She expands the one-note steely reserve she showed in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to make Lisbeth a fully formed character. The fragile emotional state underneath her hard exterior is more apparent. She's less in control here, of both herself and her circumstances, and it's a relief from the superheroics of the first movie.
But it's the revelations about Lisbeth's past that create dimension for her character that ultimately bog down the movie. The dark, shadowy hints that haunted The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo added mystery and significance to a better-than-average but still routine police procedural. In The Girl Who Played With Fire, the explicit details that emerge are too explicit, shoving literal-minded motivations in where poetic suggestion had previously been enough. And the details are painstakingly explicit—we see torture, relive the rape scene from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and, at the end, get a brutal beating and live burial to match the worst of any recent horror movies. The unpleasant tone is nearly enough to rub out Rapace's performance, but not quite. Anything less from her and The Girl Who Played With Fire might be entirely disposable. It is, though, all just simply too much.