Of the generally overpraised crop of Scandinavian genre writers, Jo Nesbo strikes me as the most cunning, with a tipsy enough balance between fatalism and nihilism to keep the storytelling unpredictable. He’s overly sadistic, but that’s the marketplace these days: grisly, grislier, grisliest. And his depiction of an Oslo with an out-of-sight but corrosive fringe of junkies and criminals is spooky even without the inevitable serial killers popping up. I was thrilled to hear that Nesbo’s dissolute police detective Harry Hole was coming to the big screen in The Snowman, with an A-list cast under the direction of Tomas Alfredson, who made the peerlessly eerie coming-of-age vampire movie Let the Right One In. I knew the Norwegians would bridle over Alfredson being a Swede and the main roles cast with Brits. But I figured the film would have an off-the-charts creepy quotient (the novel is chilling) and gobs of atmosphere. I could never have predicted it would turn out to be such a shambles.
Some of the disorientation is purposeful, some of it accidental, the problem being it’s hard to tell which is which. I’ve rarely watched a film in which every scene begins a few beats late and is snipped off before its natural conclusion. Do we blame the screenwriters? Or is Alfredson at fault for all the disjunctive lurches? Or did the Snowman — a serial killer fond of leaving his/her victims segmented — get hold of the negative? Surely the credited editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker, is howling in despair.
The medium-sized, conventionally handsome Michael Fassbender is the supposedly very tall, freakish-looking Harry Hole, which wouldn’t be an issue if Fassbender could signal internal freakiness. Were some of us fooled by Fassbender, so startling as Bobby Sands in Hunger, so breezily funny in Inglourious Basterds? He’s dullish here, stricken-looking and slow, his gaze turned inward. I feel sad for people who haven’t read the book: They’d have no idea of Harry’s backstory, how his relationship with the apparent love of his life, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), came to an end, and why they continue to be so affectionate — even though Rakel has moved on to a stable, well-off doctor (Jonas Karlsson).
That said, Gainsbourg is warm and lively enough (with a snappy, mod wardrobe) to hold an audience’s interest, even if they’re not entirely sure what she’s doing. As Harry’s young partner, Rebecca Ferguson — a wow in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation — has a witty, teasing presence, but scenes involving her character seem to be missing. Even more of a non sequitur is Val Kilmer as a Bergen detective investigating a related murder. Kilmer has puffy cheeks and a hammy basso voice that would throw you out of the movie even if knew how he fit into the plot. (You learn how he fits in, but too late for that plotline to generate suspense.) J.K. Simmons with a voice I’ve never heard — like an English-inflected bellows — plays a rich pervert who lobbies for Oslo to get the Winter Olympics and gets points for weirdness. Chloë Sevigny shows up to decapitate a chicken and get some karmic payback.
The basic premise — someone is targeting the mothers of young kids — should have made this a surefire bone-chiller, and there are fleeting scary bits involving snowballs hurled from the darkness and the sudden appearance of snowmen with coffee-bean eyes and twig arms. The setting, with its icy, winding roads and skinny bridges over vast gorges and fjords, is eye-popping. I found myself wanting The Snowman to work so badly that I thought of every scenic interlude as a potential fresh start, a reboot. No such luck. The buildup to the climax is decent but the payoff so pathetic that the previous audience seemed stunned. It was, in the end, a bad match of director and material. Alfredson’s style is oblique, indirect, while a good detective thriller needs clarity, decisive beats, and an old-fashioned cathartic finish. The movie plays as if he threw in the towel in the editing room. It’s a stiff.
NB: After writing the above, I learned that the director feels the film is “incomplete.” Glad we agree and I sympathize, but little in the way of additional footage would correct for what’s there.
An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Rebecca Ferguson was in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol instead of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. We regret the error.