Michael Fassbender in The Snowman (Photo: Universal)
★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tomas Alfredson
STARS Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson
The advance promotional material for The Snowman, the new film based on the international bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø, states that a serial killer in Norway strikes “on the first snow of winter” and the detectives on the case have to solve the case “before the next snowfall.” A clear timetable, a clear pattern – sounds fine. Only, in the actual film, this simple bit of intel is never made clear; instead, it’s only mentioned that the killer strikes whenever the snow falls. Whenever the snow falls? In Norway? In winter? At that rapid pace, wouldn’t Norwegians soon become as extinct as dinosaurs?
At any rate, this narrative incoherence is the norm in The Snowman, a muddled thriller that appears to have been edited by a blind man wildly swinging an ax. Of course, that’s not the case – shockingly, the credited editors are two absolute masters, three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull) and one-time Oscar winner Claire Simpson (Platoon). One can only assume they did the best they could with the material presented before him – a deduction strengthened by director Tomas Alfredson’s after-the-fact comments that an abbreviated shooting schedule prevented him from filming up to 15% of the script.
Fifteen percent is an awful lot of narrative to lose, and we can only be thankful that many of our favorite films weren’t similarly affected. How did the rebels gain possession of the Death Star blueprints? I don’t know; I guess it was in that 15%. Why is Rick Deckard still alive at the end of Blade Runner, when Roy Batty clearly had the upper hand? Beats me; must have been in that 15%. And did they end up saving Private Ryan? I refer you to that missing 15%.
But I digress. The Snowman stars Michael Fassbender as a detective who is pitched as Oslo’s greatest sleuth but, until the film’s final act, seems only slightly more competent than Inspector Clouseau. The man’s name is Harry Hole – I understand that in Nesbø’s book, it’s made clear that it’s pronounced “holy,” but everyone in the movie speaks it as it’s spelled, making one wonder why Harry Hole didn’t try to break into porn like Dirk Diggler or even Bucky Larson. Perhaps it’s because Harry’s too busy trying to find out who’s going around killing various local women. Harry and his colleague, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), determine that the killer is targeting women who he believes have behaved immorally, whether via an affair or an abortion or what-have-you. Since there are no hypocritical Republican politicians from the United States visiting Norway during the times of these murders, Harry and Katrine are forced to set their sights on local suspects.
As a mystery, The Snowman proves to be an utter failure. The identity of the assailant becomes glaringly obvious halfway through the film, but even being armed with this knowledge doesn’t help much in understanding his motivations or mindset. Worse, the picture is so choppy and underdeveloped that it’s near-impossible to place all the events from the killing spree (which take place over the course of a decade) in chronological order and have them make sense. Even with Alfredson’s claim that 15% of the story wasn’t filmed, there were obviously other cuts to the story – this is supported by the movie’s trailer, which contains so much different material from the finished product that it might as well be the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok or Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.
Although set in Norway, most of the actors (the cast also includes Charlotte Gainsbourg and Toby Jones) speak in their usual — and usually British — accents, which is fine. But what’s up with the American actors? J.K. Simmons, appearing as a powerful Norwegian businessman, adopts a strange accent that’s unfamiliar to anyone residing on Planet Earth – forced to identify, I’d say he sounds like a drunk trying to impersonate both Frances McDormand’s clipped cadence in Fargo and Colin Firth’s elegant speechifying in, well, anything. As a boozy detective, Val Kilmer is even more indecipherable – his slurring recalls the stories of Marlon Brando’s audition for The Godfather, when he stuffed cotton in his cheeks and mumbled his dialogue. And on a side note, was Kilmer dubbed? His voice never sounds like it’s escaping from his mouth; instead, it seems to be hanging somewhere up in the rafters. (P.S. I just found out that Kilmer finally admitted to having throat cancer, which might explain some of this.)
On the plus side, Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha) does an exceptional job of capturing the frozen desolateness of this wintry landscape, and even during the risible climactic confrontation between Harry and the killer, his shot selections are impressive enough to (almost) distract from the silliness at hand. As for Fassbender, he does what he can within the rigid confines of the standard movie detective. But while Nesbø wrote a number of novels featuring Harry Hole, the actor probably shouldn’t count on reprising the role in future films. Given the disappointment of The Snowman, this looks to be a Hole-in-one, with no further escapades likely to materialize on screen.