The Snowman had all the makings of a great horror crime-thriller in the vein of Silence of the Lambs. It too was based on a provocative mystery novel, Jo Nesbø’s acclaimed international bestseller. It was helmed by an esteemed director, Tomas Alfredson. The Swedish filmmaker chiseled a reputation for crafting compelling adaptations of tricky novels with his celebrated vampire tale Let the Right One In, and the Oscar-nominated espionage drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. With a cast that boasts such critically heralded stars as Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and J.K. Simmons, Alfredson seemed destined for a three-peat success with his latest. So perhaps the greatest mystery of The Snowman is not the identity of its merciless murderer, but just how all this promise came together in an incoherent and tone-deaf mess.
Fassbender stars as Oslo detective Harry Hole, once legendary for his insight and doggedness, now mostly regarded as a reckless drunk who lumbers into investigations in between binge-drinking blackouts. When a young mother goes missing, Hole reluctantly teams with rookie Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), who suspects an elusive serial killer is to blame. As the body count rises, this mysterious murderer leaves taunting handwritten notes, and sullen snowmen as silent witnesses. Hole and Bratt must follow the clues before this cold-blooded killer strikes again.
The Snowman is littered with outlandishly gory details like dismembered corpses, and a bloody hybrid of snowman and human. Yet it never achieves chills, in large part because its story struggles to make sense. An unceremonious opening pitches us into the tragic childhood of the unknown killer, whose single mother committed suicide before his very eyes. Then we’re dumped years later, where Hole is sleeping one off in a playground, his body rigid with cold and age. Just as abruptly, the film will toss us 9 years back to Bergen, and introduce another drunken yet determined detective, played by Val Kilmer, whose bizarre performance is a mystery all its own.
Cartoonishly ornery, Kilmer’s glowering cop seems to be in a different film from the rest of the cast who coast uniformly on an icy reserve. But more jarring, it appears his every line of dialogue has been overdubbed. The lip sync is often off, and the low grumble that rumbles out of his sneering lips doesn’t sound remotely like the actor. But before this sideshow gets too distracting, Kilmer’s character is chopped from the narrative, a fate that likewise befalls noteworthy co-stars Toby Jones, James D’Arcy, and Chloë Sevigny. Their recognizable mugs initially suggest they’re characters will be of great importance. Instead, each is here and gone with a dizzying flippancy.
As The Snowman leaps from one confoundingly clumsy sequence to the next, you get the strange sensation that you must have wandered away from the film to make a sandwich, missing something crucial. However, ethereal bits of information and character development are absent. In the blink of a bleary eye, the love plot goes from barely sparked to raging. The reasons for suspecting the film’s red herring jump from vague to irrelevant, as he’s brusquely discounted. And a subplot about Hole playing father figure to an angst-ridden teen (Michael Yates), feels so haphazard that its inclusion becomes a telegraph for a not-so-shocking reveal. The Snowman is a shambles of a film, desperately straining to tie its fraying threads together, if not into an impressive tapestry or a tidy bow, then at least in a gnarly knot.
And Alfredson knows it.
Ahead of the film’s press screenings, Alfredson seemed to offer a plea of mercy, confessing that the film was rushed into production resulting in 10-15% of the script never being shot at all. “It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle,” he told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, “And a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.” This shocking admission suggests Universal is releasing what the director sees as an incomplete film. Its every scene agrees. But beyond the slaughtering of logic and the slapdash storytelling, there is a chilly lunacy that makes The Snowman not just confounding and frustrating, but also grimly absurd. Those damn snowmen.
In fluid yet stern tilts and pans, Alfredson again and again reveals short, smirking snowmen. Each time, the score stings to suggest we should see these stunted figures with their crudely carved faces as sinister. But whether scribbled on a clue, constructed outside a victim’s window, or topped with a blood-dripping human head, they are laughable. It’s too easy to imagine someone swapping out The Snowman’s austere score for something sillier, thereby transforming this lifeless, messy mystery into a ruthless parody of the genre. Even if Alfredson had gotten all his days, pages, and intended shots, it’s inherently ridiculous to cut from Fassbender’s knitted brow and concentrated glare to a glistening snowman whose expression looks like the sad face emoji.
The Snowman opens Friday, October 20th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com