Despite an impressive pedigree, ‘The Snowman’ is a complete disaster from its very first moments.
Bad movies come in all different shapes and sizes. The most common, of course, is calculated mediocrity; these films, developed and executed for the lowest common denominator, tend to be more frustrating in their blandness than outright incompetent. At a certain level in Hollywood, it’s hard to make a movie that’s objectively bad, and that might be why critics have approached The Snowman with something approximating cheerful disbelief. By failing to execute even the fundamentals of studio filmmaking, The Snowman becomes something else entirely: the rare Hollywood prestige picture that is an utter disaster from the word go.
On paper, everything was in place for a truly special movie. The film was based on a series of popular crime novels; directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), one of the more highly regarded directors in Hollywood; it even featured a pair of talented performers in their prime. Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a troubled-yet-brilliant police detective who becomes the obsession of a local serial killer. The killer prefers to tip his hand before his next kill; he leaves snowmen at the scene of the crimes before they actually occur, and even goes so far as to file an anonymous missing person report on a woman mere hours before he cuts off her head. In his search for the killer, Hole is joined by departmental transfer Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman with a questionable preoccupation with local business leaders and dark ties to a disgraced cop who committed suicide years ago (Val Kilmer). As Hole and Bratt close in on the killer, Hole also works to regain the trust of his ex-girlfriend and her teenage son, working hard to earn his role as the boy’s surrogate father figure.
Seems pretty straight-forward, right? Wrong. If you’ve read any of the recent headlines regarding The Snowman, then you’ve seen Alfredson’s claim that he wasn’t able to shoot 10 – 15% of the script. A normal person would assume this means that cohesive sections of story were missing from the final version of the movie. Instead, The Snowman plays as if 10 – 15% of the scenes were removed at random from the script, leaving the film a breathtaking mess from its opening moments. Characters undergo wild mood swings, turning on their colleagues – or oscillating between grandiose displays of emotion and sullen resignation – before we understand their original motivations. No single performer suffers from this more than Rebecca Ferguson, whose character is caught between an entirely unnecessary series of flashbacks and a red herring so all-consuming that the film seems genuinely surprised to discover that s/he is not the actual killer. When her connection to Val Kilmer’s character is finally revealed, it would seem that the movie has forgotten to give us a reason to care.
Even the most fundamental elements of the movie seem disjointed and off. Alfredson, who previously gave Sweden’s winters a beautiful sense of isolation and longing in Let the Right One In, has failed to give Oslo any such visual flair. Sure, occasional moments of beauty remain: in one scene, Hole speaks with a suspect on the banks of an inlet, and precarious city and coastal mountain range scale upwards in the background. Norway is simply too pretty not to have a handful of beautiful shots, but there’s no visual cohesion to the film, no assist from the cinematography and production design to help offset the film’s weak narrative. Even the soundtrack – written by the typically reliable Marco Beltrami – fails to find a thematic through line. Much like everything else, the score feels more like a mishmash of early demos, giving The Snowman no aesthetic continuity on any level of production.
And since The Snowman is almost entirely dead on arrival – the opening sequence alone would hold its own for the worst five consecutive minutes of film you’ll ever see in a wide release – nothing is left for audiences of The Snowman but to pass the time counting minor offenses. There’s the fact that each member of the cast seems content to speak in their natural accent (with the notable exception of J.K. Simmons, who is doing… something else entirely). There are the flashbacks to a visibly distraught Val Kilmer, whose lines are inexplicably and oh-so noticeably dubbed. There are uncomfortable sex scenes and pointless travel sequences and even a subplot involving twin Chloë Sevigny characters that are introduced and forgotten before we can even wrap our heads around what is going on. And through it all, Fassbender chugs along at 70% capacity, not quite unplugged but never threatening to bring Harry Hole above the madness.
Oh, but there is one scene in the movie worth praising. In an early flashback, one character arrives at a murder scene at the top of a ski resort, only to overhear that the dismembered body was discovered by a group of schoolchildren on a class trip. As the character’s tram creaks its way to the top of the mountain, he is passed by a returning tram full of the screaming, sobbing children who discovered the body. There will be multiple times in your screening of The Snowman when the movie elicits peals of unintentional laughter from those in the theater, but let’s give credit where credit is due on this one. As far as absurdist crime scene jokes go, a cable car full of weeping children scores pretty highly in my book.