Film Review: The Snowman

Sorry, Scandinavian mystery geeks: The first adaptation of Jo Nesbø's popular Harry Hole detective novels is a bumbling mess that makes David Fincher’s 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' look like 'Chinatown.'
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Deep, deep inside The Snowman, between the permanent rictus of Michael Fassbender’s half-frown and the slow zooms of spooky snowmen, can be glimpsed the outlines of the passable mystery movie that might have been. In addition to Fassbender, the talent-heavy cast ranges from Chloë Sevigny to Charlotte Gainsbourg and Toby Jones. Director Tomas Alfredson has tightened screws masterfully in Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But there is the brittle and dry screenplay, which no jump-edits could cure. Viewers must also deal with the conundrum of the Val Kilmer flashback. Its existence is more baffling than anything in the mystery plot, which winds its way through the movie like a blind mole. Even Kilmer doesn’t seem to understand why he’s there, swigging vodka and shooting a pistol into the air to provide a modicum of backstory to another character who doesn’t require it.

Oslo detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) is your basic Good/Drunk Cop. When first spotted, he’s drying out on a park bench after a week-long bender (see: Drunk Cop with Demons). Dragging himself back to the precinct, Harry’s captain lets him skate (see: Good Cop Who Doesn’t Play by the Rules). So, while it’s bad for the citizens of Oslo that a serial killer is starting to hunt them down, it’s good for Harry. Separated from his girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son Oleg (Michael Yates), Harry is in a sodden funk. The man needs a project.

Just in time to stop Harry from falling dead-drunk into a snowdrift, women begin to go missing. Harry’s vaunted detecting abilities don’t clue him into any connections. Fortunately, detective Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), who transferred from the town of Bergen, helpfully shows up with a file of leads and a theory about what’s going on. Unfortunately, nobody can quite figure out why the abductor/killer is leaving behind squat little snowmen with creepy smiles made of coffee beans. This last part isn’t really the fault of the Oslo police—even most viewers, privy from the clunky opening scene to the primal childhood moment that started the killer’s descent into murderous madness, won’t quite be able to draw the connection.

The convoluted yet dull storyline ploddingly follows the basic parameters of a standard catch-the-killer plot without giving it much conviction. This means The Snowman must rely on its protagonists to carry the story. That’s a shame, because Fassbender and Ferguson play only to their default modes: a kind of flat dyspepsia and fluttering anxiousness, respectively. Gainsbourg brings slightly more spark to her thankless position in the stock ex-girlfriend role where she is dating a steady but dull white-collar guy but can’t quite forget chain-smoking, sozzled and obsessive old Harry. It isn’t enough to fan the story’s weak embers.

The stories that abounded about how Alfredson wasn’t given nearly enough time to shoot such a complex thriller make sense upon seeing the final product. Although a good 20 minutes too long at nearly two hours, The Snowman still shows signs of unfinished business. Harry’s fellow detectives on the case are never truly introduced, and spend most of their time hanging around in the middle distance. Sevigny is revealed with great drama to be playing twin sisters, only to disappear shortly thereafter. Once the killer is exposed and their past illuminated, the strands don’t quite connect. Marco Beltrami’s wallpaper score feels like an afterthought. A little more time to shoot connective tissue and another pass on the screenplay could have done wonders.

That being said, there are only so many times that the camera can slowly zoom towards one of the killer’s little snowmen without a giggle starting to rise in your throat. Also, the essential asceticism of Nesbø’s tightly clenched, pared-back language is a terrible fit for Alfredson’s smoky and textured aesthetic. Divorced from the page, the story can’t help but look old-hat and quite absurd. That combination, plus Val Kilmer, just about dooms The Snowman, and potentially any other hoped-for Harry Hole adaptations, from the jump. That’s too bad, because eventually Harry goes to Hong Kong, where presumably there are no serial killers who build snowmen whenever they get that murder urge. 

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