Since Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue, crime and detective stories have remained a popular part of public culture.
One can barely turn on a television and open (insert streaming service of choice here) without being inundated with programmes depicting flawed geniuses solving gruesome crimes in exotic locations. Undoubtedly due to the suitability of the genre to episodic television, cinematic depictions have been scarce of late. Enter The Snowman, which attempts to bring a chilling tale of Nordic noir to screen but manages only to be a slushy mess that resembles something squashed together by children.
Based on the bestselling novel by author Jo Nesbo, The Snowman sees Michael Fassbender play Harry Hole, a Norwegian detective in Oslo. There have been many boring and obvious jokes about the name. In Norway, it is pronounced ‘Hoh-leh’ and is apparently quite common. Though the film is thoroughly westernised: ‘Politi’ changed to police, newspapers written in English, characters who speak in British accents. Why not change his name to something less ridiculous? Let’s just call him Harry. Harry is a brilliant detective with a drinking problem and a tortured past. Although the viewer is subjected to plenty of drinking, no past, and certainly no brilliance. We are, however, told of his prowess. Star recruit and new partner Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) explains that she studied his cases “at the academy”. Katrine believes that she has found a prodigious serial killer that has gone unrecognised. One that strikes when the snow falls and leaves behind a twisted signature — a snowman. Coincidentally (the film is rife with convenient coincidences), after Bratt’s hypothesis Harry receives a personalised letter from the killer and the hunt begins.
Well, less of a hunt and more of an amble through a gallery of tropes and half-finished story threads that wrap up with the nuance of HSC student running out of time in an English exam. Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In) wrote before the film’s release that up to 15% of the script was not shot, leaving the plot to be spliced together in the editing room. I doubt the missing percentage would fix the gaping holes in the script. That would be like filling a half-finished jigsaw puzzle with play dough and calling it a day. They couldn’t have been too short, several shots that appear in the trailer were omitted from the final product. What was shot, and released, includes an inconsequential subplot involving J.K. Simmon’s billionaire Arve Stop, a bid for the Winter Olympics and (possibly?) human trafficking, a muddling mess of interviews and the death of a character that is inexplicably ignored and never confirmed. Then there is Val Kilmer’s baffling appearance as detective Gert Rafto in a series of flashbacks. His scenes have been inexplicably dubbed and leave him looking like a failed ‘Lip Sync Battle’ contestant whose puffy face has been injected with bee venom.
It does have its moments. Sweeping shots of frosted roads snaking across frozen fjords build a chilly thriller atmosphere, a few well-executed jump scares and an effective scene involving coffee beans and melted snow hints at what could have been. Unfortunately, the snowmen of the central conceit are never given the right attention, and by the third hard cut from suburban street to a sludgy snowman, become more comedic than horrific. Good crime story resolutions come slowly into view like a boat on the horizon, with a sigh of contentment and a chuckle of inferiority from the audience as they realise the answer was right there the whole time. The Snowman has none of that. The payoff is ham-fisted and confusing. And when a completely mistimed hint at a sequel came, I couldn’t help but think: there snow way I’d watch that.