Look, I’m going to be straight with you: The Snowman isn’t as bad as some of the other shitty movies released this year.
It’s not as egregiously manipulative as The Book of Henry, nor is it as insidious as The Emoji Movie, and it sure isn’t as painfully cynical as The Mummy or the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean. What it is is tremendously boring, vapid, and vacuous in a way that gives new life to the stupid criticisms that have always followed around director Tomas Alfredson, that he’s an empty stylist telling dull stories dully, and somehow finds new ways to undermine them at the same time. It’s a disastrous mirror image of his previous film, the utterly masterful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in that it takes a well-known piece of genre fiction and attempts to put a chilly spell over it, flanked with a tremendous cast. Yet every single soft step that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy took to ensure it’s solidification of character and plot so that the subtle notes and quiet pacing could lull one into a hypnotic state of satisfaction is replaced in The Snowman with the thud of a hammer — perhaps wielded by an unsure Alfredson or potentially (and more likely) that of other producers — that smashes the film’s story up into something totally unrecognizable.
You’ve probably spent enough time laughing at the name “Harry Hole” already (I have to wonder why this didn’t click when your mom was giving out copies of this book to all of her reading circle friends, but whatever) so we’ll just call our main character here Mister Police (Michael Fassbender). Mister Police is a cop who is perpetually down on his luck and can be found soused in public parks around Oslo. Once he was a brilliant detective, with his exploits recounted in Norwegian police academies all around the country, but now he’s estranged himself from his fellow officers and, most importantly, his girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son, who left his drunken ass for a stable life with a not-at-all creepy plastic surgeon (Jonas Karlsson). Mainly Mister Police has just become a drunk fuck up because he hasn’t had a good case in a while, or so is implied, and luckily for him, women start disappearing around Oslo. He’s paired with a neophyte officer named Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s been researching a possible serial killer in normally peaceful Norway, and may have a deeper connection to the events than she’s letting on. And, sure enough, there is a serial killer running around, one who Katrine thinks might be a powerful local businessman (J.K. Simmons), but regardless of his identity, we know one thing for sure: he enjoys making snowmen at the scene of his crimes. Sounds fun, right? The studio certainly hopes you think so.
Well, I hope you like watching people sleep-walk through the whole of a movie. The entire cast seems bored with what they’re given, and what moments of liveliness do crop up (like a short and silly fight between Ferguson and Fassbender) are less evocative of Alfredson’s best work than they are of that scene with all of the CGI cats in Let the Right One In. The closest Fassbender role that this is evocative of is his role in Shame, if that movie was lobotomized and didn’t understand its main character, and one wonders how much of that is the direction or just general dissatisfaction with the material. Mister Police could have been a cool character to put on the screen, given how deeply his original author, crime fiction maestro Jo Nesbo went into his psyche, but Alfredson and his screenwriters are just happy to go with the most boring cop-redemption arc available to them.
Ferguson, usually given complicated and strong roles, seems tired and stunted by the nature of Katrine and her specific traumas. Even the excellent character actors Alfredson brings in aren’t able to leave much of an impression: J.K. Simmons was perhaps hired based on a great wedding toast he once gave, given that it’s all that he seems to do here (well, aside from taking creepy smartphone photos of young women), and Val Kilmer is mangled and misused in ways that will be studied for years by film students as to how not to handle an actor who has a cancer diagnosis mid-shoot. Kilmer’s illness seems to be the only reason as to why Alfredson could have possibly chosen to overdub his voice with another actor’s, but the entire effect is done so poorly that you have to wonder why they even bothered to do so in the first place. It is a goddamn shame, frankly, with what they’ve done here, and the actor deserves so much better.
Cinematographer Dion Beebe ensures that things look Scandinavian enough for us to remember that this isn’t taking place in wintertime coastal England, with you’d be forgiven for mistaking given the choice of actors and their accents, but it’s obvious that Alfredson misses his longtime behind-the-camera collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has moved on to significantly greener pastures. It’s dark and lacks the sharpness that Van Hoytema brought to the filmmaker’s prior films, and Beebe’s talents just aren’t suited for the location and Alfredson’s static shots, given how immediate his work feels under the direction of someone like Michael Mann. Even worse is the editing, which (as far as I can remember) features two separately credited editors in the opening credits and shows it.
One can only assume that the reason producer Martin Scorsese brought in his go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker was after he saw the director and original editor’s assembly cut and deemed it terrible, but her presence doesn’t smooth things out. Transitions are handled poorly, information is excised, and the pace (which I’m assuming is what was it was cut to enhance) remains as sluggish as humanly possible. Alfredson openly admits that the production didn’t shoot 10-15% of the screenplay and discovered they hadn’t filmed enough footage in the editing suite, but I’m also willing to believe that Alfredson’s slow and methodical style clashed with Scorsese’s in a number of ways and, after viewing what seemed to be an unmarketable catastrophe, the latter was given some more extensive editorial power on the final cut. It still doesn’t work, no matter how much effort was put towards it.
It’s a damn shame, too, because what bits and pieces you can pull out of The Snowman that resemble other Alfredson works — his fascination with voyeurism, his methodical camerawork and emphasis in support of that creepy end, and his penchant for exotic brutalist and cold landscapes — feels like it could have been in a better movie. Maybe not a good one — apparently so much of what makes up the plot of this film can’t be changed, only mitigated, and that’s not necessarily enough to fix what’s wrong (I have a penchant for hating movies that essentially double as excuses for their protagonists’ shitty behavior towards others) — but a more captivating one, easier to fit in the context of the filmmaker’s larger work.
As it stands, there’s not much here that would signal to you that it was a movie from the man who seemed to be on top of the world in 2011 and was full of potential and promise, and that might make it worth much of the scorn it’s getting from the world at large. It’s just baffling at every single level.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.