2017 | rated R | starring Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Chloe Sevigny, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones | directed by Tomas Alfredson | 1hr 59mins |
Studio Pitch: In the tradition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl on the Train comes a movie about a serial killer who builds snowmen as a calling card.
After the big reveal of the killer and their motives in the latest pulpy murder mystery The Snowman, I was left with more questions than when the movie started. I knew the film was based on a novel, but it didn’t become clear until afterward when I learned it was based on a series of novels starring a drunken Oslo detective curiously named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender). The best explanation for the film’s numerous characters and plot points that go nowhere is that it is setting up things not for this movie, but for a series of sequels. The movie is positively crowded out with these loose threads. It’s like watching Batman vs. Superman again.
Director Tomas Alfredson became one to follow after making the legitimate modern classic Let the Right One In; and this movie is full of A-list talent. Maybe in a decade we’ll get a bunch of people spilling the beans The Island of Dr. Moreau style on how The Snowman went so horribly wrong from page to screen, but now we can only speculate. It isn’t the worst. It isn’t offensive or insulting. There are things here to grab onto to keep you engaged – even if a lot of that is Alfredson’s gorgeous landscape shots of Oslo and Bergen Norway – but the narrative is a mostly formless mass. Like a pile of matches. Things are set up that don’t pay off and things are revealed that aren’t really set up. It’s an almost incoherent mess of strands wrapped around a relatively straight-forward story that the movie jogs around the block just to get back to square one. Nothing about the mechanical construction of this movie comes together at any point.
It’s unintentionally funny too, getting ridiculous without the slightest hint of self-aware irony. From the slasher movie sound effects as the killer stabs branches into the snowmen to make arms to J.K. Simmons’ coincidentally Harvey Weinstein-esque performance as the creepo businessman trying to bring the Olympic games to Oslo – except The Snowman doesn’t have the rights to the Olympic trademark so it’s the Winter Games World Cup. The big question at the center of all of it is why, after doing his kills, does the killer take the time to build a snowman with coffee bean mouths goes unanswered. Killer snowmen have been inspired sources of macabre from Jack Frost to Calvin and Hobbes but here they are just the latest purely ornamental serial killer gimmick, standing in front of the victim’s house facing inward for no narrative purpose (Yes, I get it – he’s the snowman).
Also in the mess is a prologue with a killer origin story that plays as half-cooked and under-developed as everything else. Harry Hole is in the middle of a relationship I haven’t seen before in a movie, he’s not the divorced cop dad or the new boyfriend. He’s the ex boyfriend who seems to have bonded with his exe’s son and gets along with her new boyfriend. The movie ultimately tries to wiggle it’s way into an age old story of fractured families and bad parents making screwed up kids, but it doesn’t so much explore the complexity of this core idea but leave it for it’s villain to have something to monologue about after the big, unforgivably botched, reveal. The Snowman doesn’t seem to know that the revelation of the killer’s identity would be a big deal in a serial killer movie, letting it slip almost by accident when the time comes.
Everything that happens seems inconsequential and random, as if parts of the movie were write separately and blindly put together. Despite the killer sending notes to both Val Kilmer and Harry Hole taunting them, there aren’t actually clues given and no riddles provided by the killer lead to the final reveal. The killer’s MO doesn’t lead us anywhere either. The killer uses that wire-retractor device from The Counselor, sometimes decapitating the victim putting their head on a snowman, sometimes putting a snowman’s head on the body and sometimes just cutting them up and leaving them facedown on a mountain. He switches MOs like a Norweigan Zodiac killer. But why? The notes, the supposed games, the kills, the drunk detective, the woman who wants to get revenge against a powerful man – The Snowman feels like a Frankenstein’s monster slapped together out of the laziest genre cliches.
I’m the last person to be calling the logic police on a movie, particularly a pulpy mystery. None of this craziness would matter if The Snowman were a fun ride, had compelling characters that were well acted or was thrilling and tense. It’s a snow-covered mystery that is flat in the mood department, making me long for the simple satisfaction of Wind River earlier this year. That movie was a straight mystery told well. The Snowman is an overstuffed mystery filled with empty gimmicks, ponderous poetic parallels, traps that aren’t traps, clues that aren’t clues and red herrings that pad the running time when they should have been either elaborated or cut entirely.
As pump mystery adaptations go it’s not worth mentioning in the same breath as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and marginally better than The Girl on the Train. The film bends over backwards trying to be tricky and shocking, but in a strangely half-assed way that suggests Alfredson doesn’t care and Fassbender is cashing in a free trip to Norway. Which again, is the movie’s de facto highlight. Alfredson has made a beautiful postcard here. Otherwise, it’s wacky, muddled junk.