On paper The Snowman seems to have everything right. It’s the long awaited return to the big screen for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), it’s got an all-star cast led by Michael Fassbender, and it’s based off a best selling novel by beloved Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. Add to that an intriguing trailer and this film had me thinking it could be the next Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a stylish and intriguing mystery with some European flair. Instead, The Snowman is a baffling mess, in which the only intriguing mystery is how things could possible have gone so wrong.
Michael Fassbender stars as detective Harry Hole (yes that is his real name) who we first meet as he wakes inside a children’s play structure after an alcoholic bender. Things aren’t good for Harry; his ex has a new boyfriend, his alcohol-fueled absences are causing stress at work, and not enough people are getting murdered in Oslo to keep him distracted with cases. That is until Katrine Bratt, an investigator recently arrived from Bergen, draws his attention to a string of missing and murdered women. Katrine seems to have a special interest in these “cold” cases, stretching back nearly a decade and touching numerous high ranking figures in Oslo’s upper class. After some quick detective work Harry surmises the murders to be the work of a serial killer, as they share some intriguing similarities: they all occur on snowy days, all of the victims are young, married mothers, and all of the crime scenes feature a smirking snowman with a mouth made from coffee beans. Also there’s a flashback at the beginning that basically sets this all up.
As intriguing as this premise sounds, the results are surprisingly boring and nonsensical. In fact The Snowman may be used in future classrooms as an example of how not to edit a mystery film. There is never a semblance of momentum or cause and effect in how Harry and Katrine go about their investigation. Katrine’s interest centers around a suspicious doctor Ivar Vetlesen (David Dencik), who seems to have a connection with the victims. This doctor seems to be hiding a woman at his house for his businessman friend Arve Stop (J. K. Simmons, doing some sort of weird British accent). Arve is working on the campaign to bring an international Winter Games to Oslo, and has a connection with an industry leader from Bergen (where earlier Snowman murders took place). Juicy stuff right? Well none of that has any bearing on the central mystery of the film. It’s never even really clear whether these suspects are supposed to be considered part of the main investigation, or a part of Katrine’s subplot. Looking back, I’m not even sure if there was a main investigation. I mean, the detectives never even acknowledge the fact that there’s a freakin’ snowman at every crime scene they visit so…I just don’t know.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the film tries to juggle a number of strange subplots at the same time as the “main” mystery. Occasionally we’re transported back in time to an earlier “snowman” murder in Bergen, involving a ski hill and a body chopped into pieces. This crime is being investigated by Val Kilmer’s Detective Rafto, another hard drinking veteran detective trying to keep it together. These jumps are incredibly jarring, not just because the scenes never coalesce into anything interesting , but because they’re edited and dubbed in a way to hide Kilmer’s inability to deliver his lines. A subplot following Harry as he tries to atone for his destructive addiction with his ex Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son Oleg (Michael Yates) is slightly less confusing, but still feels tacked on. This is mainly due to that fact that everyone seems to shrug off the fact that he falls off the grid for week-long benders, because…he’s just so cool. Even Rakel’s new boyfriend Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) goes out of his way to cover for Harry when he misses one of Oleg’s school trips.
There are countless non sequitur plot details that are introduced, and then either not explained, or never visited again. The Oslo Winter Games bid. A piece of police technology that allows real-time uploading of evidence. The woman in Vetlesen’s house. A guy cleaning mold out of Harry’s apartment. The killer’s specific mutilation of his victims. The fact that it seems very cold outside but there’s always amazing packing snow readily available. All of these details (okay maybe not the snow thing) are treated as if they’re very important when they come up, but fizzle out with little explanation. You’d think a crack team of screenwriters like this film had would know how to trim the fat when adapting a novel.
If Tomas Alfredson hadn’t shown with his previous work that he is more than capable of crafting a complicated mystery, I’d say that The Snowman is a classic case of a young director trying to do too much, but it’s clear something else is at work. Alfredson has said that he wasn’t able to film 10-15% of the screenplay, and if that’s the case that must have been an integral 10-15%. It’s a shame because there are some really engaging elements to the film. The freezing cold Norwegian cityscapes are filmed in a way that makes you long to explore their snow-crusted streets, and Alfredson’s proclivity for shooting his actors through windows – seemingly safe and warm from the outside cold – adds an unnerving edge to seemingly innocuous scenes. Unfortunately, as an engaging mystery The Snowman makes as much sense as snow in July, and will be greeted with the same disdain.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.