5 out of 10
Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole
Rebecca Ferguson as Katrine Bratt
Charlotte Gainsbourg as Rakel Fauske
Val Kilmer as Gert Rafto
J. K. Simmons as Arve Støp
Toby Jones as Investigator Svenson
David Dencik as Idar Vetlesen
Ronan Vibert as DCI Gunnar Hagen
Chloë Sevigny as Sylvia Ottersen/Ane Pedersen
James D’Arcy as Filip Becker
Jamie Clayton as Edda
Jakob Oftebro as Magnus Skarre
Jonas Karlsson as Mathias Lund-Helgesen
Michael Yates as Oleg Fauske-Gosev
Alec Newman as Mould Man
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Every director, no matter how talented, no matter how discerning, has one of these on his resume. Coppola has The Cotton Club and Rumble Fish, Scorsese made The Color of Money, Mankiewicz got saddled with Cleopatra and De Palma somehow turned in Bonfire of the Vanities. Spielberg has a few. Films with all the ingredients for something interesting but which, when all mixed together, become a tepid, unappetizing mess. Or in The Snowman’s case, a hole in the ice; a hidden trap drawing in a host of talented filmmakers and sending them all to the same watery grave.
The Snowman is the first big screen adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s popular detective Harry Hole (Fassbender), a talented investigator on the Oslo police force who balances battling the forces of evil with battling alcoholism, drug addiction and his other inner demons. [For more examples of this, see every detective invented post-1970]. His inner recriminations and attempts to create a semblance of family life through his old girlfriend (Gainsbourg) and her son are put on the back burner when a series of missing persons start to turn up as murder victims. Fearing the originally-unconnected cases are connected after all through the country’s first serial killer, Harry and new recruit Katerina (Ferguson) are soon combing old history and new leads, trying to find the killer before he leaves another anonymous snowman marking the taking of another victim.
It’s easy to see why a book like “The Snowman” would attract filmmakers and studios to it. The debased copy and depraved killer is an historically-popular paring and Nesbø’s novel makes no attempts to experiment with these classic genre tropes, leaving everyone in familiar terrain for the tone. [The script by a trio of talented writers isn’t exactly faithful to the book as they try unsuccessfully to dump its worst excesses of girl-in-the-refrigerator disease, but the sense of it is clearly there]. The familiarity of western Europe combined with the hint of the exotic in its foreign location, the appeal of the white landscape as setting for the blackest of deeds, visual fetishes of the snowmen calling cards, and the killer’s habit for dismembering his victims. A complicated main character whose personal travails merge with the plot to engage in a broader thematic discussion of specific social ills. You can practically see it as you’re reading it, so why not make a movie out of it? I mean, it worked for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, right? David Fincher fell for that same trap a few years ago and he was making an actual Dragon Tattoo movie.
It’s easy and fun to rag on movies like The Snowman for how fully they fall on their face – and make no mistake about it, The Snowman fails at almost everything it sets out to do. Beyond a few fleeting moments, there is little tension or mystery – the characters rarely rise above the archetype level (despite some hard work by a solid cast) and the plot spends most of its time chasing a red herring before suddenly dumping it without warning or care. The drama is flat, the tone rarely reaches the level of discomfort Alfredson is going for (and this is a director known for his mastery of tone) and the pace is hideously inconsistent as editors (and old masters!) Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker randomly drop in flashbacks to characters we’re never given enough time with.
But under the theory that it’s better to talk about what the film got right than what it got wrong, there is a good film buried deep in that snow, good enough to see why Alfredson and executive producer (and originally-slated director) Martin Scorsese would have been drawn to it. Outside of the stellar Norwegian landscapes expertly photographed by Dion Beebe and moments of genuine discomfort from Alfredson and his editors, there is rich, thematic and character depth to be had, even if it’s only hinted at in the final version. Though the film doesn’t have much to say about or to women, it flirts with the traumatic high wire of the parent-child relationship and how easy it is to get wrong, from Harry’s dislocated relationship with his maybe-son Oleg to the sinister medical organization all of the victims interacted with which may somehow be complicit in their deaths. Beneath that, there is the deeper layer of corruption from a local entrepreneur (Simmons), who may or may not be associated with the missing women and has his own habits in destroying families. Not only are the lives of the victims thrown into sharp relief but so are the passions of those committing the crimes as The Snowman looks at the tendrils connecting the two and suggests they may be stronger than the other threads of a person’s life.
It’s good in theory, anyhow. I don’t say this sort of thing often, in fact I usually say the exact opposite, but The Snowman could have benefited from an extra hour. With enough time, the divergent characters could have been brought more in line with the thematic devices Alfredson is playing with, creating more illuminating. Yeah, it could have allowed the plot to drive around in even wider, more pointless circles instead, but I say look on the bright side. If the film is the experiment in throwing things at the wall and picking one element to go with that it seems, perhaps Alfredson could have daringly thrown out the plot and stuck with Harry and his family life, or even his new partner and his mysterious past. If The Snowman is guilty of anything (and honestly, it’s guilty of a lot of things) it’s giving preeminence to its plot at the expense of all else and ultimately of not realizing the plot was the weakest element in the mix.
In the post-auteur world (and for better or worse we’re still living in that world), it’s understood that this is somehow all in the director’s control, or at least he’s the one shouldering the blame for it. I’m not sure that’s true here, though I have to admit there’s no way to know just watching the film. It’s possible the director convinced himself he could bind all the strings together right up until the end, he wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last. And if he has failed, it’s a failure that puts him in august company and suggests his strengths will lead to more successes than Snowmen in the future.
And it could be worse. He could have ended up with The Tourist on his resume.