Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, J K Simmons, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones, Michael Yates, David Dencik, Jonas Karlsson, James D’Arcy, Jakob Oftebro, Adrian Dunbar, Chloe Sevigny, Ronan Vibert, Genevieve O’Reilly.
Nordic noir tends to be darker and bleaker than your typical Hollywood crime thriller, probably because they spend so much time in the dark, with long, bleak winter months. But unfortunately, The Snowman is a lesser example of the genre. This subpar thriller is based on the 2007 best-selling crime novel written by popular Norwegian author Jo Nesbo (Headhunters, etc), whose novels have sold some 30 million copies world-wide. The Snowman is the seventh novel in the series of Nordic noir mysteries featuring Nesbo’s flawed hero Harry Hole (played here by the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic and world-weary detective who has seen too much death and human misery in his career. He is a brilliant but burnt-out sleuth who usually solves grisly murders and track serial killers.
In The Snowman, Hole is drawn into a cat and mouse game with a vicious serial killer who is murdering women. His victims tend to be mothers who are estranged from the father of their children. A snowman is left at the scene of each crime, and the killer sends Hole a taunting note featuring a crudely drawn snowman. Hole works with rookie detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson, from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, etc), who is obsessed with solving a cold case from a decade earlier that seemingly has links to this killer. We see some details of that earlier case via a series of flashback sequences that follow the doomed efforts of detective Rafko (a visibly ill and wasted looking Val Kilmer) to pursue the serial killer. The case also has links to powerful but corrupt and sleazy businessman Arve Stop (Oscar winner J K Simmons, from Whiplash, etc). And somehow it also links to Harry’s own troubled relationship with his ex-partner Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenaged son Oleg (Michael Yates).
The plot itself sounds gripping enough and the film explores some dark themes of neglected fathers, dysfunctional families, damaged individuals, obsession, corruption, and murder. But this thriller misses the mark and falls short of classics of the genre like The Silence Of The Lambs, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and David Fincher’s atmospheric and chilling Se7en. There are a few gruesome moments here, but the pacing is surprisingly pedestrian, and there is a real lack of tension or suspense until the absurd final confrontation between Hole and the killer.
Part of the problem lies with its murky and at times indecipherable plot. There are too many red herrings and loose ends that lead to a lack of coherence. Some subplots from the novel lead nowhere or are not satisfactorily resolved. Three writers have unsuccessfully tackled the novel, including Hossein Amini (Drive, The Two Faces Of January, etc), Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, etc) and Soren Svelstrup (the tv series The Killing, etc). Apparently 15 to 20% of the script was not filmed, which also accounts for some of the fractured and unsatisfactory plotting and unanswered questions.
The director is Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, whose resume includes the superior horror film Let The Right One In and the atmospheric spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the John Le Carre novel. Alfredson is normally a visually striking and atmospheric filmmaker, but here he fails to come to grips with the complex and multi-layered plot. Alfredson came to the project late in the piece after Martin Scorsese stepped aside. Scorsese is credited as one of the executive producers, and one suspects he would have brought a darker, gritty edge to the material.
Two editors have also attempted to shape the fragmented narrative – Claire Sampson (Oliver Stone’s regular editor, who worked on Platoon and Wall Street, etc) and Scorsese’s regular collaborator, Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who seems unable to salvage this mess.
But the film looks great, thanks to the superb lensing of Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs Of A Geisha, etc), who captures the cold and bleak beauty of the setting, the snowbound locations and landscapes, and his bleached, blue grey palette gives the dark material a beautiful surface. The cinematography is easily one of the few positive aspects of the film. And there is a suitably ominous score from Marco Beltrami (Snowpiercer, etc).
Fassbender, who seems to be in every second film released at the moment, is miscast as the troubled protagonist whose personal life is a mess. He doesn’t seem engaged or invested in the character, and he doesn’t have that dissolute look of the alcoholic character as described by Nesbo. And he seems a bit too young and healthy to be convincing. He struggles to make the character both compelling and fascinating. Simmons’ character is a red herring that distracts from the central mystery, while Toby Jones, a solid character actor, is wasted here in a thankless and brief role.
The Snowman is a flawed and deeply disappointing thriller that will disappoint fans of Nesbo’s novels. Given this unsatisfying adaptation it is unlikely we will see another Harry Hole thriller in the near future, at least not until the memory of this turkey has been erased from our consciousness.