There is just no easy way to put this: The Snowman is a complete disaster. What makes that so shocking to write that is the pedigree of talent involved: the cast features Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, James D’Arcy and Val Kilmer, while the director is Tomas Alfredson, whose last two films were the masterful Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The movie is based on a best-selling crime thriller by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø, one of a series of 11 revolving around brilliant but dissolute detective Harry Hole (your mileage may vary on the pronunciation). Nesbø has been writing the books for 20 years, and The Snowman is the seventh, but for some reason was chosen to ostensibly kick off another Scandinavian crime franchise along the lines of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Wallander and others.
Sadly The Snowman can barely kick itself off, let alone a successful new series. Following a prologue in which a little boy watches his mother drown herself in an icy lake after an altercation with the brutish married man and police officer she is sleeping with, we cut to the present and meet Fassbender’s Harry drunk and sleeping outdoors (this is Oslo in the winter, so how he manages to even be alive is one of the film’s unexplained mysteries). Harry — who seems to spend most of his time sitting around the Oslo police station waiting when he’s not drinking — gets drawn into a case involving a woman who has disappeared, a case that soon expands to include several missing women who all connected by the fact that they have a child who may or may not be the product of their troubled marriages.
As headless and dismembered bodies start to turn up — usually accompanied by snowmen left outside their homes or where they died — Harry and his new partner Katrine (Ferguson) poke their way through a labyrinth of puzzling and seemingly random leads. Harry is also struggling through his still-unresolved relationship with Rakel (Gainsbourg) — who has already moved on to a milquetoast doctor (Jonas Karlsson) — and her son Oleg (Michael Yates), who reveres Harry as a father figure of sorts since he doesn’t know who his own dad is. Wait a minute…
I wish I could say that I won’t go any further because of spoilers, but the truth is that going further into the increasingly incomprehensible storyline is a losing proposition anyway. It took three screenwriters (Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Søren Sveistrup) to wrestle Nesbø’s book into a script, and even with taking extensive liberties they still produced an incoherent mess. Whole subplots lead absolutely nowhere — the biggest involving J.K. Simmons as a politician trying to bring the World Cup to Oslo — and end up being useless, time-wasting distractions instead of the red herrings they were perhaps meant as. There is also a series of flashbacks involving poor Val Kilmer (whose voice is obviously and sloppily dubbed, presumably due to his recent battle with mouth cancer) that I did not even at first realize were set in the past: Alfredson shoots these scenes exactly like the rest of the movie, which makes them seem as if they’re happening concurrent to the main story and not years earlier.
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But that’s just endemic of the problems with this movie, which looks like it was thrown together in the editing room in a last-minute rush. Whether he didn’t get the footage he needed or not, Alfredson has no control over the movie: his restrained style, so effective in his previous films, does not work here with what is in the end pretty lurid material. Any atmosphere he does generate comes from the rugged, stark white Norwegian landscapes. He doesn’t do his actors any favors either, leaving them stranded in long, pointless scenes that seem to be based around how intensely two people can stare at each other without asking what the hell is going on.
These detective series live and die on how invested we are in their protagonists, and in this case we can’t relate to Harry at all because even Fassbender’s natural intensity and charisma can’t rectify the fact that we’re not getting anything about Harry’s internal life at all. Why is he a drunk? What has happened previously to him? If he’s such a brilliant detective, why do we not see him do much actual detecting? Perhaps a handy copy of the book by your side might help with those queries.
Ferguson probably fares the best of all after her striking turns in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and The Girl on the Train, but even her initially lively and pro-active Katrine is reduced to a cheesy back story and an embarrassing sequence in which this seemingly professional investigator attempts a fake seduction. At least she gets more to do than Gainsbourg, who has no agency at all and spends her time wondering where her son has run off to now, until she becomes a standard damsel in distress. Brief turn by Jones and Chloe Sevigny — playing twins in one bizarre sequence — amount to little.
We’ve seen it before: a group of clearly talented people, some of them exceptionally so, come together on a project that seems like a sure thing and end up with a bloody, tattered mess that will end up on a lot of lists of the year’s worst films. At one point did this collection of filmmakers lose sight of what they were doing? Was there a moment when any of them realized that — presumably despite the best of intentions — this wasn’t working? The biggest mystery about The Snowman — which really doesn’t have much mystery, suspense or intrigue to it at all, but does contain a lot of snow — is how something like this could happen in the first place.
The Snowman is out in theaters Friday (October 20).