If you were compiling a collection of the worst movie advertising campaigns of all time, The Snowman would have to be on the list. Any menace that might be gleaned from this dark, R-rated thriller instantly evaporates upon viewing the poster, which features a crude stick figure of a snowman who looks like he’s suffering from hemorrhoids along with the tagline: “Mister police. You could have saved her. I gave you all the clues.” It’s supposed to be creepy, but it just comes off as silly. And the film, a slow-motion car crash of a cinematic mishap featuring terrible performances from normally good actors and a bafflingly half-baked script, delivers tenfold on the poster’s promise.
Michael Fassbender stars as one of the most ridiculous things about the film, a stereotypically tortured, alcoholic detective named Harry Hole. (In Jo Nesbø’s original novel, it’s pronounced more like “HO-leh,” but everyone in the movie just says “hole.”) Everyone in Harry’s life is somehow able to address him without giggling—names that sound like rejected John Holmes pseudonyms are common in Norway, apparently—but it undeniably damages his credibility as a grizzled badass. That’s the least of old Harry Hole’s problems, though: He’s prone to getting drunk and passing out in snowy alleyways, he’s absolutely shit at being a father, and most importantly, he fails to pick up on a twist that becomes pretty obvious halfway through the film. Some master detective. But hey, at least crippling alcoholism hasn’t ruined his six-pack abs!
Meanwhile, Harry and his equally brilliant, tortured protege Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) are pursuing a possible connection between a string of missing women—all promiscuous, all pregnant—and shady business tycoon Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons). Even the relationship between Hole and Bratt is cliché; he’s the obsessive detective flirting with the dark side, and she’s the legacy cop with a personal connection to the crime. Anyway, that connection ends up going absolutely nowhere, but not before Bratt puts herself into physical danger in reckless, unnecessary, and highly unprofessional ways. (She also takes off her socks but leaves her tights on before crawling into bed, one of this movie’s many minor mysteries.) Clocking in at just under two hours, The Snowman is a hip-deep slog through pointless intrigue and half-assed detective work for most of its running time, punctuated with serial-killer iconography that might have been terrifying on the page, but plays like an SNL parody on the screen.
For starters, there’s the opening sequence, the dumbest and most obviously telegraphed psycho-killer origin story since 1982's Pieces. Basically, the illegitimate child of an abusive cop is building a snowman the day his mother commits suicide, leading that child to grow up to be a serial killer who cuts off his victims’ heads and puts them on top of snowmen. (Seriously.) Or, if the victim’s head gets blown to pieces with a shotgun or whatever, the killer will make a head out of snow and put it on top of the corpse, leaving nothing but the coffee-bean eyes and mouth as clues as it melts. He also builds frowny-face snowmen (sans human heads) in the front yard of his victims’ houses, leading to multiple hilarious shots of disapproving snowmen overlaid with sinister music. The whole thing is just very silly, and that’s before that stupid “Popcorn” song gets involved.
The talent in front of and behind the camera on The Snowman is uniformly top notch—it was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, for Christ’s sake—which makes the question here not only “why,” but “how.” We know why the likes of Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny, and Charlotte Gainsbourg were on board; director Tomas Alfredson’s last film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was nominated for three Oscars, so of course they wanted to work with him. But how on earth did Alfredson get such flat, lifeless performances out of all of them? Was it the cold? Too many late nights on the town drinking aquavit? Were they following the lead of main man Fassbender, who turns in perhaps the most disinterested sex scene of the century in this film? Val Kilmer doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo in a hammy performance as another drunk cop who plays by his own rules, but even that is ruined by some shockingly bad ADR.
Alfredson seems to know he fucked up here. Before The Snowman’s release, he went on the defensive, saying the production was rushed and the film basically had to be salvaged in the editing room. Okay, so that explains the subplots that go nowhere and the sloppy attention to detail. But there are also tonal issues with the film—namely, a lack of suspense and an inability to bring anything resembling weight to the goofy/horrific imagery—that can’t be explained away by a rushed shooting schedule. And if 10 to 15 percent of the script wasn’t even shot, as Alfredson claims, isn’t that on him as the director? Everyone’s entitled to a failure every once in a while, we suppose. At least this is an amusing one.