It would be specious criticism of the highest order to appraise the plot of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman without having read it. Nesbø’s work is evidently both popular and critically well-regarded, at least among those with a taste for the sub-genre of Scandinavian noir fiction. The Snowman is the seventh in a series featuring the author’s most prominent creation, Harry Hole, a shrewd but alcoholic Oslo police detective who has few friends and Doesn’t Play by the Rules. The villain that Harry faces down in The Snowman is a serial killer who—wait for it—builds a snowman at each crime scene. It’s entirely possible that, on the page at least, the plot of the novel is not as silly as one would predict based on its Calvin & Hobbes gimmick.
That said, the film version of The Snowman is unequivocally silly, and an incoherent mess to boot. This makes for not only a taxing experience, but also a downright demoralizing one, given the roster of talent involved. On paper, the film looks like a guaranteed triple, if not a home run. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson previously helmed Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, strong contenders for the Best Vampire Film and Best Spy Procedural (respectively) of the 21st century. Cinematographer Dion Bebbe is a Michael Mann veteran who lensed Miami Vice and Collateral, and co-editing duties are shared by Claire Simpson (A Most Wanted Man) and legendary Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. With Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson in The Snowman’s lead roles, and a deep-bench cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, and Tinker Tailor alums Toby Jones and David Dencik, what could go wrong? Quite a lot, in fact.
Fassbender portrays troubled detective Harry Hole, which is pronounced ‘hoh-leh’ in Norwegian, although virtually every performer unfortunately mangles it as “hoal”. This is a tiny detail, but emblematic of The Snowman’s overall attitude of sloppy indifference. Harry is an unrepentant drunk—the sort of serious boozehound who might wake up huddled in a ball on a snow-covered playground—but also good police, as they say, and a bit of a legend around the Oslo academy. He’s still hung up on his art dealer ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Gainsbourg), who has a teenaged son, Oleg (Michael Yates), and is currently living with her smarmy doctor boyfriend, Matthias (Jonas Karlsson). Harry is still friendly with Rakel and fond of Oleg, but he’s also a neglectful addict, which in cinematic terms means he forgets obligations like the poor kid’s birthday party and father-son camping trip.
Coming off a bender and seemingly prompted by little more than bored curiosity, Harry tags along with newly minted Oslo PD detective Katrine Bratt (Ferguson) on a missing person case. A middle-aged single mother (Genevieve O'Reilly) has vanished from her bed during the night, while her young daughter sleeps in the next room. The victim took neither coat nor purse, and left the front door wide open to the unforgiving winter. Harry notices an odd detail: a crude snowman, built just outside the woman’s bedroom window. However, the allegedly great detective offers Katrine only a prosaic theory involving a jealous ex-husband. Katrine, meanwhile, insists that this most recent kidnapping is part of a wider pattern of abductions and grisly murders that have occurred at different locales throughout Norway. Katrine is correct, naturally, although she is concealing her own personal connection to this ‘snowman killer’.
There is significantly more to the plot than the standard serial killer hunt, including a baffling tangential connection to a high-end escort ring run by a cross-dressing gynecologist pimp, and to a reactionary multi-millionaire’s campaign to bring a prestigious international Winter Olympics-like event to Oslo. What’s more, the filmmakers awkwardly wedge in flashbacks featuring a different alcoholic detective (an alarmingly unwell-looking Kilmer) who nine years ago was searching for a different missing woman in the city of Bergen. The film is needlessly coy about the link between these past and present-day events, given how predictable that connection turns out to be. The rollout of cell-connected tablet computers for the Oslo PD also figures prominently in all this unnecessarily convoluted skullduggery, not so much as a subplot as an irritatingly obvious Chekov’s gun.
The truly gob smacking thing about The Snowman is how fundamentally incompetent it feels, considering the caliber of filmmakers who brought this lumbering beast to life. The screenplay was co-written by Peter Straughan (Frank, Wolf Hall), Hossein Amini (Drive), and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing, both the Danish and American versions). Their filmographies aren’t without duds, but based on that writing lineup, one could be forgiven for expecting better than an ill-conceived, unintentionally comical mashup of Raymond Chandler, Thomas Harris, and Stieg Larsson.
Unfortunately, Alfredson seems to have little sense for just how ridiculous the material is, as he slathers almost every scene with a solemn, gloomy tone. (There’s no trace of the campy delight the director took in unleashing a cartoonish swarm of bloodthirsty cats into Let the Right One In’s atmosphere of doleful adolescent loneliness.) This monotony exacerbates the tedium of watching the film lazily pile on genre tropes: the alcoholic, loose cannon detective; the cavalcade of murdered and mutilated women; the cold cases that no one has ever connected; the killer with unresolved mommy issues.
What’s more, the film’s unrelentingly somber atmosphere clashes dreadfully with its goofier aspects. The most conspicuous example is the snowmen themselves. There’s nothing remotely frightening or even creepy about the sad little snowball-people the killer constructs. They rather resemble lumpy stick figures who have waddled out of some lost Don Hertzfeldt cartoon. The snowmen offer no clues, and no insight into the perpetrator’s history or psychology. At times, they almost seem to be an afterthought, as though the murderer hastily slapped one together merely because it is their obligatory calling card. In one incident, the killer somewhat hilariously half-asses the effort by simply drawing the outline of a snowman in the freshly fallen powder. On a couple of occasions, the snowmen are directly incorporated into the bloody scene-setting. In the first instance, a victim’s lopped-off head is balanced atop one of the frozen figures, and in the second the victim’s noggin is replaced with an enormous snowball studded with espresso beans for teeth. Why these ghoulish (and inadvertently funny) variations? What’s the significance of it all? The film never bothers to explain.
While Alfredson’s direction is the most disappointing aspect of The Snowman, the most stunning revelation is that Schoonmaker had a hand in the film’s editing. The fact that the woman who cut Goodfellas delivered such an unintelligible hash of a feature defies belief. Indeed, the editing is perhaps The Snowman’s most conspicuously broken formal component. The film is wall-to-wall with bewildering scene transitions that frequently leave the viewer completely lost with respect to where and when events are occurring. It’s possible—hell, even likely—that studio demands regarding the film’s running time meant that Simpson and Schoonmaker had to take a cleaver to Alfredson’s original cut. This doesn’t excuse the raggedness of the finished product, where characters vanish inexplicably from the story, crucial events seem to occur off-screen, and the telltale scars of excised subplots are everywhere. This is a film where all the connective tissue has been savagely scraped away.
Alfredson’s approach in Tinker Tailor is one where the facts of character and plot slowly solidify at a naturalistic pace. Given that the film's British spies don’t routinely introduce themselves or translate the intelligence jargon they rattle off, the viewer is obliged to slowly puzzle out what is going on based on careful observation. In some ways, The Snowman plays as the malevolent mirror image of this storytelling approach. The dialog is often of the dunderheaded sort that explains everything twice for the slower-witted viewers. (A favorite: “I’m infertile. I can’t have children.” Ah, that’s what ‘infertile’ means!) On the other hand, whole swaths of the story are completely inscrutable or nonsensical, to such an extent that even a ponderous three-hour cut of the film would likely not have filled in all the plot holes.
Indeed, most of the film’s more inveterate problems originate with its screenplay, which, aside from featuring some profoundly stupid lines of dialog, is replete with wobbly logic and workaday sloppiness. The screenwriters seem not to have noticed than many of the connections between the story’s myriad subplots are entirely dependent on implausible, results-oriented events. (The existence of the entire Winter Games thread seems to rest on Katrine making and then relentlessly committing to a single rash assumption.) The most glaring oversight is the Zodiac-style letters the killer sends to Harry, which taunt him with claims that he's been given all the clues he needs to solve the murders. Which is… not the case at all. There is no revelatory evidence at any of the crime scenes, and Harry only “solves” the case by making an improbable mental leap based on a character’s off-the-cuff choice of words. The letters end up mattering not one whit.
Saddled with such a clunker of a screenplay, the actors honestly do the best that can be expected. (Lance Henriksen is perhaps the only living actor who can deliver a preposterous line like “The killer is completely insane” with gravitas, and, sadly, he’s not in The Snowman.) Echoing David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Alfredson allows the performers to speak in a grab-bag of distracting demi-Scandinavian accents. None of the actors is working at the peak of their powers, and Fassbender is mostly coasting on his grimace, but no one other than Kilmer delivers an outright unpleasant performance. Given that the actor is reportedly battling oral cancer, he gets a pass, but there’s something uncomfortably smug and exploitative about the way that the filmmakers go out of their way to showcase Kilmer’s puffy face and pained voice.
The film isn’t completely devoid of appealing points, at least aesthetically. Shooting on location in Norway, cinematographer Bebbe drapes the film primarily in the pale blues, smothering grays, and diamond-bright whites of the Scandinavian winter. It’s undeniably a facile artistic approach for a Nordic noir feature, but the result is still suitably eerie and oppressive, especially when contrasted against the odd lush interior location awash in warm golds and scarlets.
Periodically, one can discern the superior film that lies somewhere within The Snowman’s messy outlines, primarily in the little, appropriately repulsive details. Unlike the rest of the film, the killer’s weapon of choice—a mechanized wire loop that functions like some horrific DeWalt version of the razor filament from Audition—is suitably ghastly without being ridiculous. One elegantly creepy moment involves Simmons’ tuxedoed mogul simply taking a picture with his smartphone, a gesture that calls back to an earlier scene to deliver a freezing gut-punch of dread. Ultimately, the killer’s motivation is banal stuff, being the usual cocktail of sexual shame, self-righteous rage, and sub-Freudian nonsense. However, the film’s climactic scene also takes perverse delight in undercutting the villain’s alleged rationale (and self-importance) with an offhanded rhetorical swipe. The Snowman is otherwise such a dreadful shamble that one is left clutching for such isolated glints of vibrancy and intelligence.