The Snowman: No, You Don’t Want to Build One
Few actors can brood like Michael Fassbender can brood. If the Yale School of Drama offered a Master of Fine Arts in Brooding, Fassbender would be the ideal instructor. He can do all shades of brooding too, from downcast and downbeat to tortured and tormented (and all vulnerability-exposing points in between), elevating even the thinnest of underwritten roles into deep dives into the masculine psyche (White Male Edition). But for all the masterful, expert-level brooding Fassbender can bring to a role, he can’t save director Tomas Alfredson’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In) woefully misguided adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 bestselling novel, The Snowman, from shockingly incompetent, inept sub-mediocrity. In a surprise, face- if not career-saving, move, Alfredson has spoken candidly in interviews about The Snowman’s myriad problems (i.e., a truncated, rushed production schedule, 10–15% of the script left unfilmed during principal photography) before it hits multiplexes this weekend. It won’t work.
It’s not difficult to imagine what initially attracted the Swedish-born Alfredson to adapting Nesbø’s novel: A character, Harry Hole (Fassbender), whose drawn — justifiable or not — comparisons to standout literary detectives (Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Maigret, among others), a wintry, desolate background reflective of the perpetually angst-ridden Scandinavian soul, a depth of characterization and complex plotting rare among contemporary crime novelists, and, of course, a built-in audience. None of that matters because little to anything found in Nesbø’s novels has made the jump to the big screen. The Harry Hole we meet in the first scene is an underdressed drunkard who inexplicably survives a night of sub-freezing temperatures in a public park. The constant drinking, smoking, and brooding suggest a man in the throes of some deep-seated trauma or traumatic experience he can’t shake or overcome (insert uninterested yawn here). Except we never learn exactly the cause or causes of Hole’s chronically unprofessional behavior. Given the depressingly one-dimensional characterization of Hole in The Snowman, it really doesn’t matter.
What do learn, however, is that the first official serial killer in Norway’s history has emerged to hunt, kidnap, and kill women he believes have sinned against the patriarchal order (i.e., cheated on their husbands/spouses). He leaves a forward-facing snowman as a calling card for authorities to find. When said authorities are too slow to make the connections between the disappearances, he essentially enlists Hole’s helping by sending the latter a letter taunting Hole to find and stop him before he kills again. Spoiler: Hole doesn’t. Slow to react and even slower to react (all that brooding and walking in the snow can slow things down interminably), Hole finds himself 5–6–7 steps behind a serial killer with a genius-level IQ who’s practically omniscient, if not omnipotent (he’s everywhere, knows everything, always avoid detection, and commits perfect, error-free crimes). And why does the killer hate women? It’s all in the first, painfully reductive scene: Women who abandon their children. Instead of getting therapy, he commits gleefully sadistic, misogynistic murders.
Hole’s slow-motion search for the killer leads to an unlikely, chemistry-free alliance with a young, inexperienced detective, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson). Katrine doesn’t share Hole’s penchant for alcohol or sleeping in frigid weather, but she has a hidden agenda and (wait for it) a tortured past of her own, a past so tortured that it leads to several counter-intuitive, plot-driven decisions to track one of the prime suspects, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), a powerful businessman who had an affair with one of the kidnapped women, to Stop’s hotel room during a big event celebrating a potential sports bid. It’s even more IQ-challenged and foolhardy than it sounds, but it gives Hole the ever-elusive “personal stakes” every fictional detective apparently needs to get the extra motivation he needs to set aside his personal demons and finally track down the killer.
The jumbled, unfocused plot — such as it is — pulls in Hole’s long-suffering ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg, wasted in a typically thankless role), her teen son, Oleg (Michael Yates), Rakel’s inexplicably understanding boyfriend, Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), a well-heeled cosmetics surgeon, along with the first detective, Rafto (Val Kilmer), who came close to discovering the serial killer’s identity early in the killer’s career. Alfredson introduces Rafto via clumsily inserted flashbacks early on that add nothing and subtract much from the finished product. Kilmer’s improvised, oddball, cotton-stuffed-mouth performance (a possible, if unlikely, homage to Marlon Brando’s Oscar-winning performance in The Godfather) makes little sense, especially in comparison to the realistic, naturalistic performances given by the other actors in the cast.
Then again, almost nothing about The Snowman makes sense to anyone on the outside looking in. Why a world-class filmmaker like Martin Scorsese originally agreed to direct (he stayed on to produce), why Scorsese’s longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker added her decades of expertise to the editing bay, why Fassbender signed on to appear in a franchise starter wannabe with such a poorly written, underdeveloped script, why cinematographer Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow, Miami Vice, Collateral) would agree to lens such a dreary, dour-looking film, and why Alfredson, fresh off a justly lauded adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would pick a rote, routine serial killer drama as his next film project when moviegoers can see the exact same story week in and week out on Criminal Minds via new episodes or never-ending basic-cable reruns.