This week, two different series are wrapping up on theater screens in America, and they're very different movies, although both are worth examining to look at how they wrapped up the respective stories they're telling.
"Saw 3D" is a movie I resisted seeing. I don't find the "Saw" films scary, and I don't find them interesting, so I'm sort of at a loss as to what I'm supposed to be taking away from the experience at this point. I reviewed the last movie, "Saw VI," and my feelings on that one were far more positive than my feelings about what it alleged to be the last film in the series. Of course they won't leave it alone. There's no way. The "Saw" series has kept the lights on over at Lionsgate for most of the decade, and they're not going to let that property disappear at this point. If they're smart, though, they'll take a break and let the audience get hungry for the title again, because right now, they're running on empty, creatively speaking.
There was a nasty bit of behind-the-scenes business with director Kevin Greutert, who also made "Saw VI." He was originally hired to make "Paranormal Activity 2," but Lionsgate freaked out and exercised a contractual option to force him to direct "Saw 3D" instead. Call me crazy, but forcing a filmmaker to direct something they weren't interested in making seems like a recipe for disaster, and his work in this film would seem to bear out just how disinterested Greutert was. There's little energy or wit on display here, and even the traps, which have increasingly become more and more ridiculous and elaborate, are treated with a sort of perfunctory quality here. This doesn't feel like the grand finale to anything. It feels instead like a story that's over that is now just marking time, repeating itself.
Sean Patrick Flannery plays a Jigsaw survivor who has made a nice living for himself by writing and talking about his experience, using it to inspire others. Not a bad idea, except I don't buy the notion of Jigsaw as a redemptive figure. I know that's the big idea of the series, and it's a clever one if executed properly, but I don't think they got it right. For that idea to really resonate, they would have to be scrupulously careful about who Jigsaw drops into his traps and why, and the traps themselves would have to be less Rube Goldberg and more psychological. The series pays lip service to the notion of Jigsaw's work having some purpose, and certainly Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the former cop who is now carrying on the work of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the original Jigsaw, believes that the work he's doing is just. Or at least, if the film were well-written, that would be the case. The Hoffman in the last film was more in line with those ideas, while in this film, he's basically just a big dumb movie slasher and little else. Another major story thread that seemed to be building to something, involving Jill, Kramer's widow, is completely flubbed this time, and Betsy Russell ends up stranded by the role, just another faceless victim. To have both Hoffman and Jill reduced to these roles by the film is a sign of just how finished the series really is.
Technically, the film's a mess. The 3D is laughable, the entire thing appears to have been shot through a slice of ham, and for a movie that professes to be the end of a series, there's a sloppy, haphazard feel to it all, like it unraveled instead of being wrapped up cleanly. I've never been a fan of the "Saw" films, but at this point, I'm glad they're done for the moment. Now I won't feel an obligation to pretend there's any lasting significance to them, or that they matter to pop culture at all. I have a hard time believing Jigsaw is still going to be considered an iconic movie monster in 20 years, and I think ending the series on a note as sour as this one is a big part of why the series won't endure.
Unlike the "Saw" series, where each new film was just an additional afterthought, greenlit based on the grosses of the one before, the Millennium Trilogy was all filmed at once, adapting all three of the Stieg Larsson novels at once for Swedish television. They were released as films, and now they're airing the series, with extra footage cut back in to flesh them out. While they are busy with that in Sweden, the rest of the world is just now getting theatrical releases of the movie versions, even as David Fincher shoots the English-language adaptation with Rooney Mara in the lead role as Lisbeth Salander.
And now, for the first time, I am now fully caught up on all things Lisbeth Salander.
When I first wrote about this enormously successful character from this enormously successful series, it was earlier this year, and I'd only seen the first film, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and I'd read the first two books.
This week, I finally read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, and I saw both that film and the middle movie in what is called The Millennium Trilogy, "The Girl Who Played With Fire." I read the books in order first, and I saw the movies in order, so my feelings on the series, the phenomenon, the performances, and everything else are an overall reaction to this entire amorphous thing, even including David Fincher's currently-shooting English-language adaptation of the series.
What I find most interesting about the entire thing is something I touched on with Devin on this week's Motion/Captured Podcast. Essentially, these are female revenge movies, grindhouse material classed up for the most mainstream possible audience. It's as canny a legitimization of edgy material as when "Silence Of The Lambs" took serial killers mainstream. There is a very fine line dividing something like "They Call Me One-Eye" or "Ms. 45" and these books and films.
Noomi Rapace is a lovely lady when you see her in interviews, which makes it very disconcerting when I watch the films and they appear to star Jackie Earle Haley circa 1983. I think Salander is a tough character to play on film and make interesting because of how internal she is, and while I think Rapace's work is fine in the films, I don't see the reason for the sudden international stardom aside from the high profile of the movies. I'm sort of amazed that these are the films that break through as art house successes at a time when so many arthouse films are struggling to find any audience, but I guess they're riding the sort of cross-media phenomenon, and they'll do until the audience has those Fincher movies to watch.
I will say that I think Daniel Alfredson did a better job as a director on both "Playing With Fire" and "Hornet's Nest." That first film was a near-total botch of the innate pulp drama of "Dragon Tattoo" and its story, which is the one stand-alone mystery in the series. "Playing With Fire" and "Hornet's Nest" are really one story, and they're not focused on any external mystery like in the first film. Instead, the character of Salander takes center stage, and her backstory becomes the mystery that must be solved. If "Dragon Tattoo" is Blomkvist's story, the story of an investigation in which this supporting character sort of draws all the focus, then "Playing With Fire" and "Hornet's Nest" are "Hannibal" and "Young Hannibal," where the supporting character overwhelms the series completely and throws the gravity off, so you suddenly realize you're watching something totally different than you were at the start. Salander herself spends much of the third film immobilized, which doesn't make for a particularly compelling lead, and with her at the center of the series, I find it surprising that these are known as "The Millennium Trilogy." That's the name of Blomkvist's magazine in the series, and while they are certainly part of the story all the way through, it's not a trilogy about the magazine.
Ultimately, the original title of the first book is still the one that best describes the entire focus of the series: Men Who Hate Women. Lisbeth Salander doesn't strike me as a realistic character or a particularly deep one, but she speaks directly to an anger that exists, real and potent and simmering, over the way men personally and institutionally wield power over women and their bodies. She is an avenging autistic angel, a heroine who could only have been written right now, and if you're looking for something that turns real societal rage into pulpy crime fiction, this series does indeed satisfy.
In honor of the theatrical release of "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" and the release of "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on both DVD and Blu-ray, we've got a special prize package to offer one lucky reader.
All you have to do is come up with the best title for the non-existent fourth film in the series, and tell me what injustice Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are going to battle together. Creativity counts, and the winner will get a signed one-sheet for "Hornet's Nest," autographed by Noomi Rapace, as well as "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on DVD and copies of all three of the novels.
Sound good? Well, you've got until Monday, November 1st, at 9:00 PM PST to send me your entry. Please address it to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "The Girl With The DVD Contest" in the e-mail header.
When the Fincher films are released, I'll be reviewing them not as adaptations or as remakes of these Swedish films, but as movies that will have to succeed in their own right. For now, I think this wraps up what I have to say about the books and the Swedish films. I'm not a huge fan, but I can see the appeal, and I look forward to seeing another take on the stories soon.
"Saw 3D" is in theaters everywhere now.
"The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" is in limited release.
"The Girl Who Played With Fire" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.