Dark adult literature has taken a pretty firm hold in mainstream culture in the past few years. When the Swedish films of the “Millennium” trilogy, including “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” hit American theaters, the interest in dark mystery novels skyrocketed, giving way for authors like Gillian Flynn and Jo Nesbø to flourish from word of mouth alone. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was remade by David Fincher in 2011 as an American film and went on to gross over $260 million worldwide, meanwhile Flynn’s “Gone Girl” film adaption, also directed by Fincher, grossed nearly $370 million worldwide. While it’s been a little while since a film of its kind has come out, we return to this genre in “The Snowman.” Adapted from Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel, the film finds itself in the same vein as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in its smaller, “Scandinoir” sub-genre, focusing on homicide in Scandinavia, but can it match the success of what “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” offered.
Short answer: no. Long answer: There isn’t one, it’s still “no.”
Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender [the character name should be pronounced “hoo-leh” in Norwegian, but of course it’s pronounced “hole” here, regrettably]) is a Oslo homicide investigator at a low point in his life. Suffering from severe alcoholism, as well as stressful family issues with his ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son Oleg (Michael Yates), Hole struggles to keep his life afloat around his job. When paired with a new recruit, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) to help investigate a missing person’s report for an Oslo mother, the two discover that it might be the work of a brutal and sadistic killer of women in a city with one of the lowest murder rates in the world.
My major issue with “The Snowman” isn’t that it’s bad, but in that it’s a crushing disappointment with all of the potential it held in itself. Watching this, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “I bet the book the film is based on is good.” But the issue with the film here is that for being a mystery with tons of twists and turns, with a large array of characters, motives, actions, etc., “The Snowman” is incredibly disjointed and lacks the facility to really convey the intricacies that the story holds within it, it could’ve been absolutely wonderful. Yet, there isn’t a single scene in this film that feels like it accurately connects with the following scene, as if we had lost a transition in the crossfire.
And the thing is, we actually did. Director Tomas Alfredson has already candidly gone on the record to speak of the rushed production of the film and how it contributed to much of the screenplay actually going un-shot, saying “Our shoot time in Norway was way too short, we didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing. It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.” When it comes to excuses for discrepancies in a film, this is actually a pretty good excuse, too bad it doesn’t really change the fact about how much of this film doesn’t work, but I will go easy on Alfredson because of it.
In fact, there are a lot of good elements about “The Snowman” that do work, making the final product more frustrating than if the film had been exclusively bad. With its esteemed cast, it goes without saying that the film is very well-acted. Fassbender always does wonderful work in his performances, even in some of his lesser films. It could be argued that Hole is somewhat similar to a lot of the characters that Fassbender plays, but the lack of originality doesn’t change the power and craft put into his performance. While I wish Katrine would’ve been more fleshed out in the film, Ferguson also delivers quite a good performance in the film. I appreciated greatly the lack of a romantic subplot between Hole and Katrine, leaving their relationship to be completely professional, which shouldn’t be an accomplishment, but I’ll be generous. J.K. Simmons also does nice work as the sleazy businessman Arve Støp. Simmons is used to playing tough, serious characters, and while Støp is anything but funny, it’s quite nice to see him playing a character inherently repulsive. Of course his character in “Whiplash” was atrocious, he had redeeming qualities, Støp does not.
That being said, Val Kilmer’s strange appearance in the film was incredibly strange, stiff and actually uncomfortable. Not only does Kilmer not physically fit the bill for his character, his dialogue also seems to be poorly dubbed over in a weird mumble that’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Luckily, he isn’t in the film too much, but he’s an important piece in the story and whenever he’s featured in the film, I began to feel more uneasy than I should have in a film with such better performances from the rest of the cast.
Say what you want about how the film’s story was handled from Alfredson, “The Snowman” is an incredibly attractive film to look at. Shot by Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe, this isn’t a film for warm, varied color, but rather a cold, steely profile that works incredibly well for the story at hand. It’s a borderline monotone, but stylish and wonderfully pleasing film to look at.
Yet, the editing of the film, beyond just the story editing, is awkward and disjointed as well. Strange zooms, weird cuts for no reason, awkward shifts between scenes and ruination of otherwise attractive scenes bring the aesthetic down to a level that more so matches the film’s story. An unfortunate circumstance to say the least.
And there’s the two words I could use to describe “The Snowman”: unfortunate circumstance. Had Universal treated the film’s production with a bit more care and timing for Alfredson to properly prep and film the piece, rather than rushing a complex story into a short, attempted simplistic approach that creates more plot holes than anything else. This leaves “The Snowman” only feeling like 50% of an actual film. Good performances (except for one), attractive camera work and an interesting premise help the film reach that 50%, but the film’s choppy editing, incomplete story, awkward performance from Kilmer and general messiness in the entire affair bring the film to one big incomplete halt. I can take a film being inherently bad, as I can simply ignore it, but a film with such major potential to be great ending up being bad is simply too unfortunate to forget. “The Snowman” is unforgettable in the worst way.
10/20 UPDATE: I recently learned that Kilmer had recently suffered from a battle with throat cancer that involved the removal of some of his tongue. I won’t remove my comments above about his strange voice in the film, but I will acknowledge the 100% valid reason behind it.
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, David Dencik, James D’Arcy, with Val Kilmer, and J.K. Simmons.
Runtime: 119 minutes
Rating: R for grisly images, violence, some language, sexuality and brief nudity.
Universal Pictures presents, in association with Perfect World Pictures, a Working Title production, in association with Another Park Film, a Tomas Alfredson film, “The Snowman”