‘The Snowman’ is based on the bestselling Norwegian crime novel by bestselling author Jo Nesbø. It was Nesbø’s seventh novel to feature his most famous character, Norwegian detective Harry Hole, so this adaptation has a lot of backstory to convey, and was presumably intended to kickstart a franchise for its talent and studio. Given the icy reception that will likely await this strangely convoluted and lifeless film, those franchise hopes could be melting away with the winter snow.
Like many of literature’s and cinema’s great sleuths, Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender, bored by his own performance) has more than his fair share of personal issues. We’re introduced to Harry as he wakes from a drunken stupor on a park bench. He tries to keep a civil relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), largely for the sake of her son, Oleg (Michael Yates), but often comes up short, forgetting important dates or arrangements that they’ve made. His boss covers for him at work and the time that he does spend with Rakel and Oleg is sweet enough, but there’s a clear sense that his antics are pushing people pretty close to their limits. He begs his Chief Inspector for a case, something to keep him focused, but there haven’t been any murders in Oslo in some time.
Luckily for Harry, rookie cop Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson, showing none of the spark she exhibited in ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’) shows up at the station with a theory that suits his desire for some devious crimes to solve; Katrine believes that a series of married mothers who have all been reported missing during a snow dump were the victims of a serial killer. A snowman was found close by at every scene, and Harry believes that it may be the killer’s calling card. Harry joins forces with Katrine to crack this brutal mystery, but Katrine has a mysterious past of her own to contend with.
There are a series of flashbacks to 1992, where Detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer, blatantly re-dubbed and borderline unwatchable), a man that shares Harry’s penchant for mixing booze and the workplace, comes across the earliest victims of the killer, before apparently taking his own life. Following the clues from Rafto’s cases to the present day, Harry and Katrine discover that the trail of their murderer may extend to the heights of Norwegian society, implicating industry magnate Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons, for some reason the only cast member attempting a Scandinavian accent).
The worst thing about ‘The Snowman’ is that it’s dull. The quick recap above gives some sense of the general plot, but the reality is vastly more confusing, to the point of tedium. Plot threads and characters are introduced then dropped, entire subplots are entirely extraneous to the final reveal of the killer; this reveal is itself a twist that is laughably absurd and leads to a showdown between Harry and the guilty party that is downright ridiculous. Spoiler alert, Harry marches openly towards the armed killer and is unsurprisingly shot – people in my screening laughed, and I do not blame them. The killer’s gruesome crimes are never properly effecting, just off-putting. Harry and Katrine have some interesting personal issues to deal with, but their parallel stories are hacked together in such a way as to drain both of thrills and sustained interest. Nothing about the film truly clicks, and this may be the biggest mystery in ‘The Snowman.’
As can occasionally happen in Hollywood, ‘The Snowman’ represents the coming together of an immensely talented group of people that results in an inexplicably disappointing film. Every single name above and below the title comes with considerable pedigree. Director Tomas Alfredson is probably best known to English audiences for his terrific and subtle adaptation of John le Carré’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. The film’s three credited writers have credits on films as diverse and excellent as character dramedy ‘Frank’ and neo-noir ‘Drive’. The cast is loaded with impressive names. Nothing about the films suggests the input of these talented filmmakers and actors. Even the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe looks unusually flat and uninspired, shot with a bland, well-lit aesthetic that never gels with the story’s desire to be a dark, psychological thriller.
Another movie based on one of Nesbø’s novels, ‘Headhunters’, came out in 2011 and was a darkly comedic little treat. Given the popularity of Harry Hole and the credentials of everyone involved, ‘The Snowman’ had the clear potential to one-up this preceding adaptation. This was not to be the case, but therein lies a recommendation: anyone that was excited to perhaps see ‘The Snowman’, go and find ‘Headhunters’ instead.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting