The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)
Let’s not mince words: The Snowman is a grotesque, gruesome gargoyle of a thriller with very little to recommend it beyond some picturesque shots of Norwegian landscapes and architecture, as well as the sight of actor Michael Fassbender (a landscape unto himself), deep in thought. Always a compelling screen presence, Fassbender (Macbeth) does his best with very little, forced to third-act paroxysms of outrage that are powerful because he makes them so, but almost lost in the sheer inanity of the script. It didn’t have to be this way. Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson has previously demonstrated a strong command of brilliant atmospherics married to plot in Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so there was reason to hope that The Snowman might work. I have not read the source novel, by Jo Nesbø, and so cannot say whether the ridiculous, convoluted premise is the fault of the author or that of the multiple screenwriters (or of the fact that there are multiple screenwriters). Suffice it to say that The Snowman is a textbook case of a story that is all over the place except where it needs to be.
The problems begin in the very first scene, shot and cut in a manner that right away leaves us reeling to understand the basic actions of the characters; the visual grammar is a mess (and that is on Alfredson, for sure). We find ourselves in a Norwegian cabin by a frozen lake in winter, where a little boy builds a snowman as nasty shenanigans go on inside. Given the portentous lingering on the coffee beans used for the snowman’s mouth, plus the desperate urging of the boy’s mother to “build a snowman” (plus the fact it’s the film’s title), we understand that, yes, the snowman will matter, later. And when the opening ends in tragedy, we have but to wait for all to be explained. Fear not, there is much exposition to come.
Cut to Fassbender, an alcoholic cop asleep on a bench, vodka bottle in hand. He’s Harry Hole, whom we gather from context is a hotshot detective whose cases are legendary. True, he has an addiction problem, but what self-respecting hero doesn’t have a flaw? Soon he’ll have to put the booze behind him, as: a) women are going missing; b) his ex-girlfriend’s son wants to hang out with him; c) there’s a new piece of police video technology to master; d) a 9-year-old case to explore; e) a new female partner (with mysterious motivations) to get to know; f) insomnia to battle; g) a sub-plot about Norway’s campaign to host the “Winter World Cup” (a winter-games sporting event; h) and so much more, most of it a distraction from what should be the central mystery. It’s as if each writer were given a different task, the whole compiled from the various drafts without any attempt to make sense of the resultant amalgamation.
It’s too bad, as beyond Fassbender there are some fine actors doing good work, among them Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), as that new partner, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (3 Hearts), as that ex-girlfriend. Val Kilmer (Standing Up), as a detective at the center of that past case, is not one of the standouts. Obviously post-dubbed (for whatever reason), he delivers a Razzie-worthy performance that is the icing on the rotting cake of his particular narrative through line. Beyond all of the above missteps, however, perhaps the worst thing about the film is the excess of its violence, particularly (though not exclusively) towards women, who are dismembered with glee by the serial killer at large. Best to let this one go, then, allowing it to melt into the gritty sludge of its deserved destiny.