Cinema: Sloppy Storytelling Causes 'The Snowman' to Melt
There are two mysteries to be explored in The Snowman. The first, an ostensible whodunit, involves a serial killer who targets single women and removes their heads. A childlike snowman is left at the scene of each crime as a sort of calling card. The second, and more perplexing of the two, however, is how a film with so much proven talent-- director Tomas Alfredson and leading man Michael Fassbender just to name a few-- has resulted in such a witless, underwhelming mess. It may not be the worst film of the decade, as some critics have claimed… but it is pretty bad.
For starters, Fassbender plays a detective named Harry Hole. This is a red flag. Not only is it a terrible name by any standard of naming, but none of the other characters in the film seem to bat an eye at it. In one scene, a suspect actually utters the phrase “Ah, the great Harry Hole!” without a hint of irony. Crass monikers aside, Hole is a detective in the traditional mold, an outsider whose brilliance is matched only by his affinity for cigarettes and booze. He decides to sober up, however, after receiving a letter from the titular killer, and partners with rookie cop Katrine Bratt (a blasé Rebecca Ferguson) to hunt him down.
The premise, adapted from the seventh novel in Jo Nesbø’s best-selling crime series, has an admittedly seedy allure, though none of it translates to the big screen. The killer’s taunting letter reads: “Mister Policeman you could have saved her. I gave you all the clues.” Only there are no clues. There is no chance to save "her." There aren't even more letters, as the trailers suggest. Instead, we get secondary characters and red herrings that bloat Hole's investigation, as if the film was purposely trying to distract us from its flaws. There are two stories clumsily told in flashbacks, one involving a woman who willfully plunges to an icy death in front of her teenage son, and one where an aging detective (Val Kilmer, giving the year’s oddest performance) is working a similar case. Both stories eventually connect to the present, but the film holds them back for too long, undermining what little information they bring to the table.
The bafflement only gets worse in the present day. There’s a business mogul (J.K. Simmons, adopting a very bad accent) who may or may not be involved in The Snowman’s murders, a male physician (David Dencik) who paints his nails and pimps out his customers, and Hole’s ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, if you haven’t read the novels, comes off painfully underdeveloped. This is made all the more frustrating now that we know of Alfredson’s scheduling conflicts, which forced him to drop an estimated 10-15% of the script during production. Perhaps focusing on flimsy characters over the central narrative was not the best way to compensate; especially when most of them are written out of the final act altogether.
Missing script pages aside, Alfredson was a mismatched choice to bring the source material to life. Prior efforts like Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy thrived on the director's moody ambiguity, while a good detective story needs clarity and concise beats to pack a worthwhile punch. Ignoring these elements, and focusing too heavily on characters brooding against desolate landscapes, Alfredson winds up with a thriller that's all filler and no killer. One can only imagine what the film would’ve been like in the assured hands of Martin Scorsese (credited here as an executive producer), who was originally slated to direct in 2013.
Mercifully, there are some positives. The aforementioned scenery of Norway is beautiful to take in, and cinematographer Dion Beebe evokes a chilly film noir aesthetic that carries much of the first act. Some of the crime scenes are thrillingly perverse, particularly when the head of a woman is found perched atop a snowman (I’d withhold such a shocking reveal if not for the fact that it was already spoiled in the trailer). Then there is Mr. Fassbender, doing his best to overcome a role that relegates him to looking drunken and tired. It’s a credit to his magnetism as an actor that he nearly succeeds, and sparks hope that he’ll someday get to play Hole in a stronger vehicle.
Perhaps The Snowman would have fared better as a miniseries. It already plays as though someone cut 10 episodes down to an incoherent 2 hours, and with more time given to the countless subplots, the story might have felt sprawling instead of silly. As it stands, however, the film is a barren wasteland; a joyless exercise that’s given neither the focus nor the scope it deserves.