Distance lies at the heart of the second Lisbeth Salander story. The wide open spaces, both urban and rural, of Sweden are used as a blank canvas for Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist and a surprisingly large cast of supporting characters to write their stories across, all of which, inevitbly, intersect with blood and violence, death and tragedy.
Lisbeth’s story begins with actual distance. Having travelled the world for a year, she learns her guardian is attempting to have the tattoo she carved into his chest (‘I am a sadistic pig and a rapist’) removed. Time has passed, she’s thousands of miles away and she has the first real opportunity in her life to move on, to change, put the past away and move on. She flies back to Sweden, assaults him and steps back into the shadows and waits. She knows, on som instinctive level, that something is coming and that she can’t turn from it, instead fortifying as best she can, preparing, waiting for the attack.
Lisbeth is the iconic figure of the books, arguably the first genuinely iconic female protagonist of the 21st century and it’s easy to get taken in by the surface detail; the piercings, the goth biker chic, the attitude. It would be easier still for Lisbeth to be written, and portrayed, as weak, as someone who uses those trappings as armour to keep people at a distance and protect herself from harm. Instead, Played with Fire shows us that Lisbeth does use these things, but as tools rather than weapons. Her appearance is how she manipulates the world, moving around it, controlling the space of her life like a boxer controls the ring. Lisbeth Salander is guarded certainly, cautious definitely but she’s not weak, and it’s here, where she’s off balance, hunted and in terrible danger that that becomes clear. Spending much of the film dressed in a baggy hoodie and baseball cap, Noomi Rapace looks small, even fragile as Lisbeth, but in reality, this is the character at her most unfettered. Off the map and under the radar, Lisbeth is able to act without restraint and clearly enjoys it a little too much at times, especially in her casual destruction of two bikers who finder her at her guardian’s summer home.
The price she pays for that is vast and only becomes apparent as the film moves into it’s second half, with Lisbeth discovering who has set her up and why and, for the frst time, being completely out fought. All her care, all her precision is fruitless because the person she’s facing uses the same techniques and has waited for decades for an opportunity to crush her. Zala, Lisbeth’s father, a defector and diplomatically immune crime lord is one of the two points where the film takes a turn for the gothic. Hideously burnt by Lisbeth after years of abuse of her mother, he’s a quiet old man with a face that’s too smooth who lives in the place beyond anger and rage. His converations with Lisbeth are almost friendly, the two talking with a quiet intimacy and, on some level, recognising each other as equals. The obvious comparison is Holmes and Moriarty but there’s a familial edge to their relationship that gives it both softness and grit. These people are the same, these people are completely different, these people hate each other and the scenes between the two communicate that with both economy and savagery. As the film closes, Zala has shot his daughter three times and her buried her alive, she has responded by digging herself out and driving an axe into his knee. Neither has finished the other and the war is far from over.
A lesser writer would be content to have Lisbeth run straight to Mikael Blomkvist for help, but hre, the idea of distance returns once again. Blomkvist and Lisbeth spend less than five minutes together on screen, Lisbeth instead manipulating the journalist as she realises he’s working the same story as she is, from a different angle. That metatextual idea is fascinating; that Lisbeth and Zala are competing authors in the story of Lisbeth’s apparent crimes, and Blomkvist is used to, again, provided context for her actions. Or, to put it another way, to provide distance.
Where Lisbeth’s story begins with her visiting her guardian, Blomkvist’s begins with him being visited by a young journalist who has a story on human trafficking. The story has consumed the last few years of Dag’s life and that of his fiance, and it’s rock solid. It’s also huge, taking in high ranking former police officers who used prostitutes In short, it’s the perfect story for Millennium and Dag is asked to come aboard.
Then, Dag and his fiance are killed, by a gun owned by Lisbeth’s guardian and with her fingerprints on it. The story is perfect, cut and dried, complete with Blomkvist discovering the bodies. That moment is a beautiful example of distance too, Blomkvist arriving at Dag’s apartment building to find the other residents, in dressing gowns, quietly and rapidly leaving the building. Something awful has happened, but it’s happened at a distance.
Blomkvist too is unfettered by these events. The quiet, cowed man of much of Dragon Tattoo is replaced by a quiet, steely eyed analyst, a journalist who puts the story together using intellect and a curiously academic form of brutality. Like Lisbeth, Blomkvist is a fearsome opponent and the moment where he bulldozes his way into a new lead by calmly pointing out how he could destroy a senior policeman unless he gives him what he wants is a real stand out. He’s polite, relentless, utterly without mercy and, crucially, has the distance from himself to realise what he can’t do as well as what he can. This is arguably the most crucial element of the plot, as Blomkvist’s investigations bring the truth about Zala to light and, inadvertantly saves the life of Miriam Wu, Lisbeth’s occasional girlfriend. Blomkvist talks to Roberto Paolo, Lisbeth’s boxing trainer and, intriguingly, an actual former boxer and chef, and asks him to keep an eye on Miriam. This in turn leads to Paolo witnessing Miriam’s kidnapping and his rescue of her. This is a vital scene, a hinge around which the plot turns, and it, once again, is a scene based entirely on distance
To begin with, Blomkvist is intelligent enough to realise that, as a celebrity, he can’t be seen to get too close to the case and, as a journalist, lacks the physicality to protect Miriam if it’s needed. Crucially it also marks a change in Blomkvist’s attitude from the first story, as he begins using people as assets just as Lisbeth does with him. He’s not a piece on the board anymore, he’s a player and seems to be enjoying it with the quiet fervour of someone who has realised the boot is finally on the other foot.
The scene is also crucial for the highly unusual division of labour. In an English or American thriller, the plot would be powered and solved by Lisbeth and Blomkvist, more than likely working together. Here the two main characters don’t meet until the closing seconds of the film and no less than three other characters, Paolo, Miriam and Bublanski, the police officer investigating Lisbeth’s apparent crimes, are vital to the plot As a result there’s a real sense of complexity, of distance yet again as the five characters all find themselves working the same problem from multiple angles.
Finally, the climactic fight scene between Paolo, Miriam and Niedermann, Miriam’s kidnapper, viscerally embodies the idea of distance yet again. Here, that distance is from the past, where the female characters would be content to simply remain in peril and wait for a man to rescue them. Here, Miriam, a trained kickboxer, not only fights her attacker but assists Paolo when he tries to rescue her. The fight that ensues, yet again, demonstrates the idea of distance as Miriam and Paolo both land countless blows on the monstrous Niedermann to little or no effect. Whilst they end up escaping the fight goes disastrously badly, due to Niedermann’s medical inability to feel pain. He’s unable to feel, he’s the embodiment of distance, and Niedermann’s almost banal, placid violence is the film’s most horrifying element. He’s the embodiment of distance, of absence, a monolithic presence perpetually one step back from the world, one step submerged. He’s the physical embodiment of the horror and violence that the film revolves around; something terrible just outside the light. At a distance. For now.