‘The Snowman’ is filled with promise that it never delivers. Based on the obscenely popular novels by Joe Nesbø, directed by Tomas Alfredson (‘Let the Right One In’), and starring Michael Fassbender, the film has a pedigree for something special. Unfortunately, what we get is a beautifully shot and confusingly constructed crime thriller that frustrates far more often than it ever thrills.
The movie is so choppily edited that it suggests studio interference is as much to blame as inept screenwriting or failed direction. Either way, it’s hard to imagine fans of either the source material or the genre will walk away remotely impressed.
Following a gentle prologue involving rape, domestic abuse, suicide, and a snowman all viewed by a child (family fun alert!), we get into the main narrative. Fassbender stars as grizzled, alcoholic super detective Harry Hole. You might wonder how Harry got to be so grizzled and self-destructive, and that can be summed up in a single word: stubble. He’s anxious for a new case to calm his nerves and fortunately a new detective (Rebecca Ferguson) points him toward a string of serial murders. They generally involve single mothers. The bodies are either missing, chopped up, or in one charming instance used to complete a snowman. (The childhood favorite is always involved in the crime scenes.) Since Hole got an odd letter signed by a snowman in the early going, he’s obsessed with solving the case. Along the way, that will lead him to a sleazy tycoon played by J.K. Simmons, a mumbling detective played by Val Kilmer, a silent Toby Jones, and domestic drama with Charlotte Gainsboug. Oddly, the ace detectives never notice that the entire case is connected by one thing: everybody involved with the crime are Americans and Brits in Norway who make no attempt to speak the local language. Quite the coincidence, huh?
This thing is a mess. How big of a mess? Big enough that director Alfredson has actually been apologizing instead of promoting his new movie, claiming that he didn’t have enough time to get what he needed and desperately tried to save it in the editing room. It’s easy to see that’s the case. Pacing is odd and confused. Shots seem to either go by too quickly or linger too long without much tempo or rhythm (which is weird because the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker is one of the editors, so things must have been pretty bad). Subplots and characters disappear at random, leading to confusing gaps. Val Kilmer seems to have redubbed his entire role and did so poorly. The whole thing reeks of tampering and confusion by those who made it.
Then again, the film has very deep problems that suggest it never would have worked long before whatever went wrong in the editing room. Fassbender broods hard, but never feels right in the lead role and adds nothing. The killer’s reliance on snowmen in crime scenes and the film’s desperate desire to make the wintertime snow sculptures feel threatening never work. The story has many silly elements in play that get treated deathly seriously in ways that will inspire snickers. It feels like a campy potboiler was shot and performed like a somber art film, and when that went disastrously wrong, the filmmakers tried to force it into poppy pulp again.
It’s a shame and a waste of a genuinely talented cast who clearly signed on to work with Alfredson based on his two previous films, ‘Let the Right One In’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and then found themselves struggling to bring trash to life in the most inappropriately serious way possible. This is one of the most misconceived movies to come out of the studio system in a while, and that’s saying a lot because Hollywood delivers messy and misconceived movies weekly.
That said, ‘The Snowman’ is never boring. At least the film fails in a fun way. Almost every scene is so insane and off-base that you kind of have to sit back and marvel at it. Whether it’s a weird tablet crime solving device the detectives struggle to shoehorn into every scene or the bizarre and specially manufactured tools of the killer, ‘The Snowman’ seems to take place in an alternative universe. It’s almost as if an alien race was given a DVD for ‘Se7en’, a pulp novel, and famous actors and were told to make a movie without an understanding of how the medium or humans work. That makes for an amusing hate-watch, and undoubtedly the industry of bad movie podcasts that now exists will have a field day with this one in a few months.
‘The Snowman’ is a horrible movie, but it’s an enjoyably horrible movie. Those don’t come along every day.