The Snowman is a movie that defies you to keep watching it. Who are all these characters? Who forgot to give them chemistry and coherence? And all these sinister snowmen—are we in some sort of dark Pillsbury universe here?
You know a movie's doomed when its director admits what a mess it is even before its US release. Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish filmmaker best known for his excellent vampire-kids flick Let the Right One In and the so-so Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remake, got handed The Snowman after Martin Scorsese stepped away from the project very late in the production game. In a recent interview for the Norwegian Broadcasting System, Alfredson complained that he was given insufficient time for filming, and that resources were so thin that he was unable to shoot 10 to 15 per cent of the script, leaving narrative holes he couldn't finesse in the editing—even with the emergency assistance of Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Fans of the best-selling Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbø may be especially distressed by this movie. It's based on one of the best of Nesbø's 11 books featuring Oslo police detective Harry Hole (the surname is pronounced hoo-lah). Harry is a soulful sad-guy cop—a middle-aged loner, nonstop smoker, and classically rumpled drunk. He's possibly the last character you'd expect to see played by the unconquerably good-looking Michael Fassbender, who's never even slightly persuasive as a haggard alcoholic here, no matter how often he's shown holding an empty vodka bottle or being carried out of a bar.
Possibly because of those missing script pages, or maybe the movie's desperate editing, Fassbender gives one of his most opaque performances (the wily androids he plays for Ridley Scott are much livelier). And he's been offered no chance to project his usual line of sexy. Harry has an ex-girlfriend named Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he's on congenial terms, but she's living with a doctor named Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), so no romantic prospects there. And there's an attractive new officer named Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) who's just arrived at Harry's cop shop – she'd seem like a made-to-order love interest, and in Nesbø's book she sort of is (along with a couple of other things). But her story arc has been so mercilessly hacked down that there's no longer a lot of need for her presence.
As the movie flitters around confusingly from present to past, we learn with Harry that there's a serial killer on the loose: The Snowman, a predator who murders and mutilates women and always leaves a snowman behind (it's forever snowing in this movie) to bear witness to his bloody work. This snowman thing is easier to accept as part of the pulp classicism of the book; here, though, confronted with physical reality, you keep wondering how the killer finds all the necessary time to build his snowmen, and whether he does it before the killings (risky) or after (double-risky). This question remains a stumper, as does the nature of the Snowman's exotic killing device, which is explained in the book, but is here just another source of puzzlement.
In any case, it might be easier for Harry to catch this killer if he didn't have to wade through all of the ancillary characters clogging the narrative. There's a male doctor who wears red toenail polish, for some reason. And two women played by Chlöe Sevigny ("We're twins," says one, after the other has been reduced to a severed head). Also a Norwegian sports mogul played by J.K. Simmons (with a faintly English accent, who knows why) and the heavily weathered Val Kilmer, who barely registers as another boozy cop (or as Val Kilmer, for that matter) before keeping his own date with the Snowman.
It's depressing to watch a movie with so many characters (some very sketchily identified) and so little energy to move them around with. The icy cinematography is pretty, but it grows oppressive; and the laggardly pace wears you down—the picture has not an ounce of excitement in it. Well, maybe at the end. When the credits roll.