I should have hated this movie.
There are a lot of things wrong with THE SNOWMAN (2017), but there’s also something oddly mesmerizing about it.
THE SNOWMAN is the tale of a Norwegian detective named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender)—it’s a good thing his first name isn’t Asa — on the trail of a serial killer whose calling card is he builds angry-looking snowmen outside the homes of his victims. And that’s really all you need to know about the plot of this one.
Now, right off the bat, you’re probably thinking, “Here we go. Another serial killer movie. I’ve seen this show before.” But that’s one of the things that works in THE SNOWMAN. Its unconventional brooding style isn’t like most other by the numbers serial killer movies. As such, in spite of its issues, it somehow works.
Director Tomas Alfredson, who directed the critically acclaimed vampire movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), has created a somber, moody, and oftentimes ugly tale that is actually far less interested in its serial killer than in its two main detective characters, Harry Hole and his young protegé Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson). Harry, who is supposed to be this legendary detective, spends most of the movie drunk, as he is dealing with his own personal demons, and while Katrine is sober, she’s haunted by her own issues as well. The serial killer here is almost an afterthought, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The film takes place in Oslo, and it’s snowing for most of the movie, which is not a good thing for the detectives, since fresh falling snow seems to set off the killer. Alfredson’s photography does not capture a happy fluffy snow but a haunting depressing snow, with the emphasis on cold, which creates a mood which fits in perfectly with the anguished characters in this one.
The screenplay by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Soren Sveistrup, based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, focuses on Harry and Katrine, which makes sense, since Nesbo’s novel is part of a series featuring detective Harry Hole.
That being said, it’s a strange narrative. It jumps back and forth in awkward fashion between the present storyline and a flashback of an earlier detective, another officer dealing with alcoholism, named Rafto (Val Kilmer) who’s investigating what looks to be the same serial killer. It’s a cold case that Harry refers to once his investigation heats up, and we catch glimpses of it via flashback.
Of the three screenwriters, Amini has the most screen credits, having written films like DRIVE (2011), SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016).
THE SNOWMAN is not a happy movie. It opens with a brutal disturbing scene in which a young boy witnesses his mother physically abused before she takes her own life in front of him, all while the man who is father stands by and watches and then disowns him, since the boy is his illegitimate son. As opening sequences go, it’s a bit much. Plus it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The boy and his mother chase after the man on an icy road after he declares he’s never coming back. But we’d just witnessed him beating up on the mom, and so you’d think they’d be happy to be rid of him. Weird. But it does set the tone for the rest of the movie.
Everybody is miserable, which probably won’t make audiences like this one all that much.
The running theme here is absent fathers. Characters have fathers who have died, who have left, or who simply were never around. As such, one of the more emotional scenes in the movie involves Harry and his “son.” Harry is now estranged from his girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but he’s very close to her teenage son, who’s having a tough time of it because his real father is out of the picture, and so he is constantly running away. When Harry promises to join him for a weekend camping trip sponsored by the boy’s school, he’s overjoyed, since it’s clear that he never has any “dad” time. But Harry completely forgets about it, and the scene where the boy realizes Harry isn’t showing up, and the ensuing conversation where his mom tries to suggest that she can go with him to no avail, is a gut-wrenching painful scene that is so good it has no business being in a movie about a serial killer.
The actual serial killer scenes are bloody and violent, since the killer likes to decapitate his female victims and hack off their limbs. Nasty stuff, and while it is violent, it’s not gratuitous. It’s also far less interesting than the stories featuring Harry and Katrine.
Probably the weakest part of the movie is the snowman itself, or the snowmen, since the killer makes a new one each time he kills someone. Rather than being creepy and ominous, they come off as goofy and laughable. In fact, every time there was a close-up of Frosty’s evil cousins, I wanted to burst out laughing. Not the intended effect, I’m sure.
As expected, Michael Fassbender is very good as Harry Hole. He spends most of the movie brooding, drunk, or hung over, and manages to be sober long enough to eventually chase down the killer. It’s a performance that in a lesser actor’s hands, could have easily turned off the audience. But Fassbender plays Harry as a man who’s been emotionally scarred. The performance reminded me a little bit of the work Idris Elba does on the TV show LUTHER. And Fassbender doesn’t play Harry like a jerk. He’s a sympathetic character, as even when he stands up his young “son,” it’s clear how badly he feels.
Rebecca Ferguson is every bit as good as Fassbender. Her detective Katrine has her own demons to deal with, and so she is just as intriguing as Harry. We just saw Ferguson earlier this year in the underwhelming science fiction thriller LIFE (2017). She was also in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016) and starred opposite Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015). She’s excellent here in THE SNOWMAN.
Val Kilmer, battling cancer in real life, looks thin and unhealthy here as Detective Rafto. Yet, in his few scenes he manages to be really good. However, in spite of Kilmer’s performance, his scenes seem to have been sloppily overdubbed, with his voice not matching his mouth movements. I felt like I was watching a dubbed Japanese monster movie during his scenes.
THE SNOWMAN boasts a strong cast of supporting actors, but unfortunately, none of them do very much. J.K Simmons has a small thankless role as a rich businessman and possible suspect, and speaking of dubbing, I swear it sounds as if someone else dubbed his voice. He doesn’t sound at all in this movie the way he does in every other movie he’s been in. Weird.
One of my favorite character actors, Toby Jones, has even less screen time— it’s more like a cameo– as yet another flawed detective. Chloe Sevigny plays twins, and in one of the better supporting performances, David Dencik plays a creepy doctor who is also a suspect.
THE SNOWMAN is an ugly, lurid movie that a lot of people are going to hate because its narrative style is slow, sloppy, and rather unconventional, but all of this somehow makes this film which tells a standard serial killer story refreshing. No one in the story is all that likable, but you care for them anyway, because their lives are all so miserable and cold.
Do not see THE SNOWMAN expecting a polished suspenseful story about the manhunt for a crafty serial killer. It’s not that movie. It’s an awkward, dark, depressing, moody tale of the detectives investigating a serial killer, and as such, in spite of its many flaws, it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is, namely, to point out that it takes a certain type of person to take on the darkest sickest criminals, and that type of person is often just as tortured and wounded as the people they are hunting.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.