By Preston Wilder
Something’s a little bit off about The Snowman, an adaptation of a novel by bestselling Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo. You can sense it in the first minute, when a car drives up to a house in the snow; “Uncle Jonas is here!” says a boy, and his mum replies “No, it’s not Tuesday,” which just sounds subtly wrong (no-one would say that, not when the visitor is obviously here; the line is just there to inform us, the audience, that uncle Jonas visits every week). You can sense it in the opening credits, when it transpires that the film has two editors, one being the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker who cuts Martin Scorsese’s movies. Scorsese is among the producers – and it looks very much like a case of ‘The film isn’t working, I’ll ask Thelma to help out’, a case of emergency surgery.
Am I wrong? Maybe. It’s just that The Snowman feels hollow, as if patched together without much conviction – though in fact it’s quite watchable for much of its length, as mysteries often are. Women are going missing in Oslo, and a serial killer is suspected. Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is a legendary cop, now a has-been and an alcoholic; heroes are invariably ‘flawed’ and ‘troubled’ in this kind of movie – though of course Harry’s flaws, once established, are mostly forgotten. Harry is close to his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son, a strand that feels irrelevant but we know must be relevant somehow. There’s a flashback to Bergen nine years earlier, where another cop (Val Kilmer, looking haggard and possibly dubbed) tried to solve another murder. And of course there’s a note from the probable killer, signing himself – or herself – with a picture of a snowman.
I can’t reveal more, since the whodunit aspect is everything here – but it should be noted that the film has a lot of red herrings, even by the standards of such things, and indeed the most intriguing details (e.g. that the killer always strikes when it’s snowing, as if the snow sets off their psychosis) aren’t actually used in the plot. The other striking aspect is the constant air of contrivance, like that opening line about uncle Jonas. At the climax, for instance, when Harry is pursuing the villain, he asks his colleagues back at headquarters if they have any info on the killer’s family background – which is not the obvious thing to ask when you’re chasing someone, but the point is to fill in the gaps for us, the audience. All stories are contrivances, of course, like a magic trick that’s been set up in advance; the skill, with a good magician, lies in disguising it.
There are good magicians here, and it’s hard to know why the film doesn’t work better. The director is Tomas Alfredson, who hit two consecutive home-runs with Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The cast includes surefire character actors like J.K. Simmons and Toby Jones. Yet The Snowman is a mess. There’s a murdered woman who’s been cut up in pieces in the Bergen flashback – the film is big on severed heads and other body parts, goosing its plot with sensationalist detail – and this feels very much like a puzzle in pieces, except that Nesbo (presumably) assembled the pieces with care in his novel whereas the film, forced to take his construction apart, couldn’t re-assemble them with the same care.
A very idle viewer may even wonder if being Scandinavian has something to do with it. “I apologise for Oslo’s low murder rate,” says the acerbic police chief early on – and the whole ‘Scandinavian noir’ genre is indeed quite fanciful, positing dark goings-on in some of the safest, most complacent places on the planet. Not that it matters, of course; but it does mean the films must be convincing on their own terms, which this one is not.
It’s not fatal. There are decent scenes and effective minor characters, like a nicely sinister abortion doctor. But The Snowman seems increasingly random. Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t connect as Harry’s sidekick, a cop with a personal agenda that’s explained but still seems muddy; the flashbacks add something, but don’t feel essential to the story; the last 15 minutes, once the killer is revealed, make a mockery of the whole thing (especially the ‘snowman’ angle, which now just seems like a gimmick). You can imagine how this worked on the page, you may even spot the bits where a chapter must’ve ended on a cliffhanger; Jo Nesbo’s books have sold 30 million copies worldwide – but his fans surely won’t be happy with this flailing, slipshod, half-baked adaptation, a case of a film that starts off shaky and never quite rights itself. It just feels slightly off.
DIRECTED BY Tomas Alfredson
STARRING Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg
UK/Sweden/US 2017 119 mins