By Guy Lodge
Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but there’s no fire — delightful or otherwise — inside The Snowman, a suitably frosty but flaccid first attempt at Hollywoodizing the oeuvre of popular Norwegian noir merchant Jo Nesbø. On paper, this twisty, grisly serial-killer chiller seemed an optimum match of talent to material, with Swedish genre stylist Tomas Alfredson returning to his Scandi roots after a super-smart English-lingo debut in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — taking the reins from Martin Scorsese, no less, who still offers his classy imprimatur as an executive producer.
You’d be hard pressed to trace either man’s touch, however, in this choppy, blizzard-brained adaptation of Nesbø’s 2007 bestseller, for which the best that can be said is that it reworks the text just enough to keep the author’s die-hard fans on their frost-bitten toes. Anyone else, however, is likely to be bewildered by a haphazard structure, a surfeit of dill-pickled red herrings and the blank impenetrability of Michael Fassbender’s Harry Hole, a supposedly rule-averse detective who does markedly little detecting over the course of two hours. (Perhaps that’s his maverick USP.) On brand appeal alone, Alfredson’s film may scare up some reasonable early box office internationally; once first snowfall turns to slush, though, it’s unlikely Universal will want to build a Snowman franchise.
It might take an investigator more intuitive than Hole to pinpoint precisely where and how things unraveled in a production that seems to have been second-, third- and fourth-guessed at every turn, and bears the manifold scars and stitches of on-the-fly rethinking. The late addition to the credits of Scorsese’s revered editor Thelma Schoonmaker, supplementing the work of the estimable Claire Simpson, hints at a high level of creative uncertainty over just how to fillet and present Nesbø’s dense, misdirection-filled yarn: an introduction to Hole for film franchise purposes, though adapted from the seventh novel in a series. That may partially explain why the character — a taciturn alcoholic whose functionality yo-yos from one scene to the next — never comes into crisp focus.
The logic in beginning with The Snowman may be that it’s the most hookily lurid of Nesbø’s narratives, centered as it is on the hunt for what we are told is Norway’s first serial killer: a darkly whimsical maniac who’s kidnapping and carving up a variety of women in Oslo, Bergen and beyond, leaving a stern-faced snowman at the scene of every crime. Before we get to that, however, an oblique prologue takes us to the remote, icy countryside, where a single mother and her adolescent son are routinely terrorized by a local cop until Mom drives her car into and under a frozen lake. What bearing this grim vignette has on the ensuing plot remains unclear for some time, as does its place in the film’s slip-sliding chronology: Blame it on lurching storytelling or unchanging trends in Norwegian knitwear, but transitions between the present, the late 2000s and the mid-1980s are perhaps foggier than they need to be.
Following that introduction, the already sparse essentials of Hole’s character are drawn with minimal strokes. Unattached and seemingly little-liked in the Oslo Crime Squad, prone to spending drunken nights on the street rather than in his barren apartment, he reserves what little warmth he has for his frustrated, on-and-off ex Rakel (a little-challenged Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates), to whom he feels a semi-fatherly duty. In the film’s tangled screenplay (alternately penned by such distinguished hands as Tinker Tailor’s Peter Straughan, Drive’s Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup, creator of Danish TV phenomenon The Killing), perceptions of parenthood turn out to be a running concern. When women across the region begin disappearing, later showing up gruesomely dismembered, little seems to connect the victims but motherhood, while their respective vanishings coincide with fresh bouts of snowfall.
While Hole is clued into proceedings via naively scrawled notes sent directly to him by the killer — a device, like the squat little snowmen at every murder site, that plays more comically than creepily — the most resourceful legwork on the case is done by department newcomer Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), a like-minded loose cannon who nonetheless shares few of her hunches with her scowling partner. However coolly sexy they may be as a duo, the scattered, distracted shaping of the mystery gives Fassbender and Ferguson limited scope to forge much chemistry.
The latter’s arc, in particular, is something of a sacrificial lamb to the film’s heaviest pruning of the novel’s plotting, be it at the scripting or editing stage: Katrine’s more conflicted role in the case has been blandly simplified, her sexually fraught relationship with Hole reduced to some dour, erratic innuendo. It’s all the more to Ferguson’s credit, then, that she still emerges as The Snowman’s liveliest, most limber presence. As for Fassbender, affecting a low, near-accentless delivery that aptly matches the character’s general inscrutability — a better approach than most in the film’s Anglo-Nordic vocal smorgasbord — he’s ideally cast as the intense, silently driven Hole, but the script gives him few currents to play beneath those still, iced-over waters.
If The Snowman were merely a chilly, streamlined precis of a knottier page-turner, it could stolidly pass muster. The sad surprise here, considering how deftly Alfredson and Straughan previously navigated the far more serpentine plot machinations of a John le Carré classic, is the snowballing incoherence of proceedings. Like a game of narrative Jenga, every excised element appears to have weakened the whodunnit’s overall structure, toward a climax that may well succeed in catching viewers off-guard, but in large part because of how little sense, both practically and emotionally, it makes in immediate retrospect. Also unexpectedly absent is the textured, shadow-marinated atmosphere that Alfredson cultivated so memorably in Tinker Tailor and his smashing neo-vampire tale Let the Right One In: Heavily accessorized with needless digital detailing, Dion Beebe’s cinematography deals in shades of palest precipitation, but makes oddly little of Norway’s grandly desolate winter landscape.
It’s never exactly dull, though, with its well-populated gallery of supporting players who may or may not have a role in the macabre bigger picture: J.K. Simmons as a sinister mogul steering Oslo’s Winter Olympics bid, James D’Arcy as the hostile husband of the killer’s most recently disappeared victim, to say nothing of a precariously pompadoured Val Kilmer’s bizarro turn as a dissolute detective investigating a potentially related case in ill-fitting flashbacks. By the time the familiar faces of Toby Jones and Chloe Sevigny pop up in mostly negligible roles, however, The Snowman begins to feel like a film more dependent on such distractions than it is encumbered by them: There’s a lot happening on the surface of Alfredson’s perplexing winter wonder-why, but considerably less going on inside.