While there are elements of a riveting Noir thriller here, The Snowman proves to be more of a pulpy mess than a chilling crime tale.
Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is a heavy-drinking, hard-smoking, detective for the Oslo Crime Squad, whose career is already the stuff of legend for younger police officers in the department. When new recruit Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) pulls Harry into helping her investigate the mysterious disappearance of a woman, Harry is quick to dismiss the case as a matter of infidelity and little more. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something more sinister at play here... even before the bodies start turning up.
Together, Harry and Katrine begin to connect these grisly murders with older crimes that have more than a few things in common; including, the calling card that the serial killer leaves behind, in the form of an otherwise harmless looking snowman. As the list of potential suspects grows (including, a local abortion doctor and a powerful figure campaigning to bring the next Winter Olympics Games to Oslo), Harry gradually starts to realize that there is more to this case - and both his and Katrine's role in it - than he initially suspected.
Based on the 2007 book of the same name by Jo Nesbø (one of several Harry Hole stories written by Nesbø), The Snowman is the latest brooding novel turned film adaptation from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. The filmmaker's previous efforts include the acclaimed vampire horror/coming of age tale Let the Right One In, as well as the equally lauded John le Carré spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Unfortunately, The Snowman is a misfire for both Alfredson and his many impressive collaborators on both sides of the camera. While there are elements of a riveting Noir thriller here, The Snowman proves to be more of a pulpy mess than a chilling crime tale.
Credited to three different screenwriters - Hossein Amini (Drive), Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) - The Snowman includes a number of character subplots that never come together to form a cohesive whole with its central murder mystery story thread. Alfredson has now publicly admitted that the film was rushed through production; as a result, a significant chunk of The Snowman's script was never actually shot. Sadly, this very much shows in the final movie product. Nearly every attempted theme, storyline, and player in the film ultimately winds up feeling half-baked by the end, despite showing promise along the way to the movie's final destination.
While The Snowman's missing pieces are in part to blame for its lackluster narrative, the film has other storytelling issues too. The movie doubles down on sensationalized elements, unconvincing red herrings, and implausible plot twists, deviating noticeably from Nesbø's already pulpy page-turner source material in the process. As a result, The Snowman's lurid subject matter and portrayal of violence against women come off as being exploitative more than challenging in their presentation. The problem isn't so much that these familiar Noir tropes are outdated or cannot be handled well, it's that their execution in The Snowman is simply lacking.
The characters in The Snowman are equally paint-by-number and thus fail to leave much of an impression, good or bad. Detective Hole spends much of his time onscreen smoking and nursing hangovers, yet never develops a personality beyond the typical workaholic sleuth, in spite of Fassbender's best efforts. Ferguson is similarly misused in a two-dimensional role - that of an up and coming cop with a chip on her shoulder - and never forms a compelling dynamic with Fassbender's protagonist throughout their investigation together.
In addition, The Snowman squanders the talents of such character actors as Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons, James D'Arcy, and Toby Jones, among others, in supporting roles. Most of these side players are stuck here playing unmemorable parts (see: the ex-girlfriend who still cares for Harry, the admired public figure with a sleazy side, and so forth) that could have just as easily been filled by lesser-known actors. Val Kilmer arguably leaves the strongest impression of the ensemble, thanks to his supporting performance as the boozing Bergen detective Gert Rafto... though, he's not per se memorable for the right reasons (see his peculiar vocalisms, which appear to have been dubbed).
The Snowman does have some redeeming value when it comes to craftsmanship. Alfredson, collaborating here with cinematographer Dion Beebe (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi), draws from a cold and bleak color palette to positive effect. Combined with striking framing techniques and good use of the movie's real-world Norwegian backdrop, this allows The Snowman to maintain an unsettling and dreary sense of atmosphere throughout its runtime. That said, even Martin Scorsese's three-time Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who co-edited The Snowman with Claire Simpson) can only do so much to bridge the film's leaps in logic and fill in the gaps in the plot. Despite these efforts, the resulting cinematic narrative is far more jagged and clunky than seamless in its design.
At the end of the day, The Snowman isn't so much a complete disaster as it is a muddled attempt at a terse European-flavored Noir/crime thriller. Alfredson has elevated page-turning best sellers into high cinematic art in the past, but for various reasons (including, production issues) that didn't happen this time around. More than anything, The Snowman feels like a waste of talent on a project that plays out as an underwhelming pilot for a Harry Hole TV series. While popular European crime-solving characters like Lisbeth Salander have found success at the stateside box office before (and will return to the big screen next year, in The Girl in the Spider's Web), Mr. Hole might not be so fortunate, if the quality of his new movie is anything indication.
The Snowman is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 119 minutes long and is Rated R for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity.
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