There’s a baffling mystery at the center of this bleak, frosty crime thriller directed by Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and based on Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø’s seventh installment in a series of best-selling books centered around caustic, troubled, chain-smoking, alcoholic detective Harry Hole. The premise is tantalizing: Why is a psychopath going around killing attractive young mothers and leaving behind snowmen at the crime scenes? If the big-screen version of The Snowman were anywhere near as gripping as Nesbø’s page-turner, then that premise should be more than sufficient to power an expensive serial-killer nail-biter, especially one directed by a smart, stylish maestro, executive produced by Martin Scorsese (who originally wanted to direct it) and populated by such highly capable actors as Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, James D’Arcy, Chloe Sevigny, JK Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Val Kilmer.
But bigger questions haunt this disjointed affair, edited (to no avail) by Scorsese’s secret weapon, Thelma Schoonmaker. How did something created by such top talent wind up so drab, misshapen, choppy and uninvolving? Didn’t anyone involved notice that the snowmen look silly rather than menacing? With a mad killer on the loose, why do smart characters keep taking ludicrous risks? If Hole takes such terrible care of himself, how does he keep his body so ripped? What on earth has tamped the fire and charisma once shown by Michael Fassbender?
Although artfully shot by Dion Beebe (Into the Woods) on gorgeously gloomy Norwegian locations—virtually every frame looks moody as hell—it’s as if the entire cast and crew went snowblind. Because, really, there’s almost no other way to account for so many terrible missteps and poor decisions made along the way. Credited screenwriters Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Søren Sveistrup, apparently stymied by the clockwork intricacies of Nesbø’s plot, introduce the hero by showing Fassbender sleeping off a weeklong vodka bender in a bus shelter in Oslo. “I need a case,” he reports to his boss, whose patience is wearing thin for the once-unbeatable detective.
How did something created by such top talent wind up so drab, misshapen, choppy and uninvolving?
What Hole needs, more than a juicy murder case, is an intervention. Otherwise, he’s a wreck—this solitary, haunted maverick loner who may be a legendary crime buster but who is not much liked by his Oslo Crime Squad colleagues. If he’s such an ace, then why do clues and solutions keep dropping in his lap, especially when it’s the killer who’s dropping them? On the basis of Fassbender’s hollowed-out shell of a performance, the actor needn’t have ever bothered to bestir himself from that bus shelter.
After all, too much of the movie is about Hole popping diazepam tablets as if they were breath mints, dealing with his messed-up relationship with his ex (Gainsborough) and her needy teen son (Michael Yates) and receiving the occasional mocking message from the lady-killing psychopath. He and his melancholy, risk-taking new partner (Ferguson) slog through snow, muck and murk to track the murderer, mostly shuffling through a tiresome series of human red herrings and McGuffins played indifferently by Sevigny (as identical twins, one a victim, both non-entities), Kilmer (looking weird and sounding badly dubbed, as a predecessor of Hole’s), D’Arcy (a jittery, hostile husband of one of the killer’s prey) and Simmons (unlikely as an Olympics-type event promoter). They’re not really characters; they’re distractions, meant to unsettle and baffle us. They exist in an almost complete lack of tension, drive or suspense.
The un-thrilling finale, when it comes, startles—but only because it’s so disconnected from the jumble that’s preceded it. The brain freeze that is The Snowman should destroy any hopes of a franchise and that, considering how good the Nesbø series is, ranks as a damn shame.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.