The Snowman fails spectacularly

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Michael Fassbender in The Snowman.

1-5-stars

One year at Christmastime, we lost power. Not a particularly noteworthy occurrence, in theory, except that we had just spent an hour or two prepping a million cookies beforehand. The power was out for a few hours; we just left the uncooked cookies out until we could bake them and, although it didn’t look like anything had happened, the resulting cookies came out all janky and fucked-up and resolutely unlike the puffy confections we were used to. Nothing had changed — all the elements were there, but they just sat out for too long.

Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman is a little like those cookies. On paper, everything is there. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a delicious downer Scandinavian procedural. But for whatever reason, it sat out too long; whatever alchemical magic was supposed to take effect did not, and The Snowman is just janky and fucked-up as those Christmastime cookies from my youth.

Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole (which is pronounced basically exactly as it shouldn’t be pronounced), a shiftless alcoholic detective on the Oslo police force. In the tradition of the best drunken detectives of crime fiction lore, he’s determined and great at his job and a complete trainwreck of a human being. The closest thing he has to a family is an ex (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son, whom he kind of treats as a son when he remembers he exists. Hole pairs up with a new recruit named Katarine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) on a serial murder case targeting young mothers (the killer always leaves a snowman on the scene), but the case soon spirals out (as these do) to the upper echelons of Norwegian high society.

Scandinavian crime fiction is inherently cinematic. Everyone is cold and pale and miserable as fuck, the landscape is beautiful and barren, urban landscapes and rural ones are mere minutes from each other and the countries are small and distinct enough not to simply ape the conventions of North American crime fiction. The Snowman is no different — its vistas are impressive and its taciturn, depressed characters set the tone as dour and oppressive. Even the snowmen the killer leaves around (which have inexplicably comprised so much of the film’s advertising campaign that some TV spots make it look like a remake of Jack Frost) are kind of chilling in their oppressive blandness. The cinematography by Dion Beebe really nails the atmosphere these kinds of stories need to truly work, and yet…

Alfredson has come out in the press recently to admit that budgetary and scheduling concerns meant that as much as 15 per cent of the script wasn’t shot, but even that seems mighty generous considering how patchy and ultimately uninvolving the film is. It drops into flashbacks with seemingly little rhyme or reason; some characters sound completely dubbed over, and the horrific events at play never seem to faze anyone, as if any and all scenes involving grief were somehow left on the cutting room floor. There’s dour and there’s this, a film filled with characters who are simply cogs in a machine who perform their expected tasks and immediately vanish. (A major character is dispatched summarily in order to further the plot, with no one actually expressing any reaction to their death. A major character!)

It’s a movie too concerned with nuts and bolts to bother with anything else, though that in itself is not tremendously surprising considering that most crime procedural adaptations dispense with any and all fat. But one really wonders why anyone bothered casting this thing with heavy hitters (JK Simmons, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer and Chloe Sevigny also appear) and subsequently giving them nothing to do; one wonders why the movie favours innumerable low-rent giallo-inspired murder sequences when it gives us no real reason to care who’s murdered or why it’s important for people to stop being murdered. The Snowman walks the walk when it comes to its genre, but it can’t be expected to talk the talk when it doesn’t know the language.

Even Alfredson’s most interesting flights of fancy come off forced or bungled. He casts a weathered-looking Val Kilmer as an alcoholic cop in flashbacks that only reveal their relevance about 90 minutes in. It’s interesting to see Kilmer in this role for a second, but every sequence is chopped up and whipped around into oblivion, with much of his dialogue re-dubbed to be, it seems, less coherent. Alfredson also uses copious killer’s-POV footage that recalls classic Italian horror films (there are even leather gloves peeking from the bottom of the frame), but the gimmick is used so infrequently and so haphazardly that it never really registers.

You’d want to place the blame on the editing, considering how confusing and indifferent the film is (particularly in the early stages), but the film is actually edited by Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. (It’s only the fourth film she’s edited for someone other than Scorsese, who also retains an executive producer credit; he was originally tapped to direct.) If even Thelma Schoonmaker can’t save this, then you probably never had it to begin with.

I complain about all these things, and yet The Snowman is still watchable. It’s bad, but it’s not incompetent; it’s a true failure, instead of a misguided error that never could’ve been good. It’s predictable and confusing and in fact kind of boring, but not embarrassing. That’s an extremely low bar to clear, mind you, but it makes The Snowman’s very few qualities seem even paltrier in comparison.

Movies like The Snowman used to be more common. They were the mid-budget punts that studios fucked up and tried to bury as much as possible. (Fassbender himself was even in one: Joel Schumacher’s completely obscure Nazi horror movie Blood Creek.) Even as early as 10 years ago, a movie like The Snowman would not have been salvaged with completely misleading trailers turning it into a rollicking horror movie about a homicidal snowman; it would have been dumped on DVD with a half-assed cover comprised mostly of Fassbender’s face and maybe a squiggle of blood to show you mean business. Now the budgets of these movies is being used to pay for catering on a week of reshoots for Ant-Man 7, so it’s doubly disappointing when we’re faced with a patchy, thoroughly bungled movie like The Snowman. ■

The Snowman opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 20. Watch the trailer here:

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