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Sunday, August 08, 2010

On Girls Playing With Fire and Frank Castle

Over at Twitch, I've got a review up of the plot-heavy and character-light The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in Stieg Larsson's Milennium series of films.  Go over there and read that, if you'd please.

I wanted to harp on one point that I brought up in my review that's stuck with me since seeing the movie recently and that's the mostly useless, practically forgotten outrage found in the film, specifically with regard to sexual violence committed against women. It's one thing the be a show like Law and Order: SVU whose whole point is shock-outrage-drama, but it's another entirely to be about a bunch of social activists with left-leaning politics whose whole thing should be, you know, fighting the system and representing the poor, abused, and underrepresented.

Instead, it takes the wrathful violence tact via Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salandar, the script contriving to get abusers in her hands for the purposes of righteous vengeance, which, if anything, makes her Frank Castle in Garth Ennis's brilliant Slavers arc, but stripped bare of the latter's outsize, mad dimensions.  That is to say, he's a monster - one with a need to inflict punishment based on trauma, stripped of his emotions due to a lonely, nomadic existence. The difference between Lisbeth and Frank is that Lisbeth is just getting started while Castle has been at it for decades and the paint's starting to peel.

The Slavers pits Frank against a gang of Eastern European sex traffickers whose simple, direct, and particularly ruthless brand of sex slavery have created something like a factory system for breaking and controlling girls. Likewise, The Girl Who Played With Fire has Lisbeth tangentially dealing with those involved in sex trafficking (from the demand side) but here's the difference: Ennis's Punisher arc deals with a monster in the world of men while Lisbeth exists largely in a vacuum. Like Castle, she's largely a monster, a would-be torturer and killer, but it almost seems like the story doesn't care.

Perhaps in the books there's some kind of profound realization that this girl is fucked up - more than just her day-to-day fucked up - but I wouldn't know having not read them. On the screen though it feels like cheap, right-wing thanatos at odds with the left-wing rabble rousing within which the story seems to be set. Lisbeth's acts against her tormentors and the tormentors of others would maybe carry a bit more heft and not have the stink of cheap catharsis if the world she occupied wasn't so broadly written, with a nearly endless parade of male sexual victimizers, womanizers, and assholes. Ennis, by contrast, places his character in more or less the "real" world: we see a social worker who's horrified by Frank's methods even if the results save lives, and a couple of cops trying to play things at the middle, at least one trying to get something out of his involvement with a serial killer of criminals. Ennis uses a finer brush and as a result the picture has more detail. Sure the people Frank kills aren't worth living, but what Frank does to them is typically horrific.

I never get that with Lisbeth - it's all cool surfaces and tough schtick and it gets really boring really fast.

Tucker Stone does a brilliant breakdown of the most powerful and oft-repeated moment from that arc, and I'm not sure I could do it equal justice.


  1. Thanks for the twitch link to your review and indirect link to this piece. Well written assessment of the film, but I don't agree with your take. To me, the films are virtually Euro pink films with crime subplots.

    Like your sincere take on these pieces, though. Keep 'em coming.

  2. I would have LOVED it if the movie was going for a Euro-sleaze angle, but it felt like the script really believed it was making a capital "S" statement about... cruelty to women?

    Still, I would be interested in whatever Noomi Rapace does in the future - she seems like a pretty interesting talent.

  3. I agree, Charles. Very interesting talent.

    Perhaps the capital "S" statement about women was an intention, but I really felt it was a glossier than usual exploitation film.

    A film that also treads a tricky line in this area is Tornatore's exceptional THE UNKNOWN WOMAN. Would be keen to hear your take on it.

  4. The Unknown Woman is on the queue - expect to hear my thoughts on it presently.

    Thanks for the recommendation!