FREEZE A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenplay: Peter Straughan
Review: David Stephens
Not to be confused with the much-loved British Xmas animation short (“Walking in the Air” and all that festive crap…), this “Snowman” is anything but friendly. The film is based on the same-titled book in the “Harry Hole” series of novels, written by Norwegian crime-writer Jo Nesbø. Harry is a modern-day detective in the Oslo Police department, and something of a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, but in a colder climate. Complete with a full set of quirks and dysfunctional relationships, he solves complex murders and catches serial killers in Norway and various locations around the globe. “The Snowman” is actually the seventh book in the series, out of the eleven stories so far. The film has an impressive A-list cast joining Michael Fassbender, including; Rebecca Ferguson, Chloë Sevigny, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was shot by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose most recent success was the latest adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, but is best known to genre fans for the superb “Let the Right One In” in 2008. Now in cinemas in the UK and US, YGROY puts on an extra warm coat, but we refuse to sing “Let it Go”….
The movie opens with a prologue, concerning a young boy who witnesses his mother committing impromptu suicide via a car and a frozen lake. Then we meet Detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) as he awakens from a week-long drunken bender, finding himself in a snow-covered Oslo park. Dragging his sorry ass into the Police station he finds a strange letter in his mail, with a childish verse taunting him and promising to build a snowman. He thinks nothing of it, but bumps into new detective Katrine Bratt (Ferguson) who is working on a missing person case. As he gets drawn into the investigation, it becomes apparent that there’s a serial killer at large who’s stalking and killing married women, apparently driven by bizarre personal motives. The murderer is triggered by falling snow and always leaves a sinister snowman as a calling card. And if Harry gets too near the truth, the killer might hit too close to home…
The phenomenon of “Nordic Noir” shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. The continuing wave of effective ice-cold crime thrillers on TV and film were arguably started by Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its subsequent screen adaptations. Given the influence of those movies and the popularity of Nesbø’s books you would expect this to be something pretty special. Unfortunately, you’re likely to come away disappointed…
There are two things that you can’t fault about “Snowman”. It looks absolutely superb and it has a great collection of character actors. But whilst it knows exactly what to do with one element, the other one … not so much. Starting with the positives though, the cinematography and location work in the film is simply stunning. It’s one of the best big-screen depictions of Norway that you’ll see. Fluid and perfectly framed landscapes vie with dramatic snow-covered mountains and the occasional chilly suburban areas. Filmed authentically at the locations from the novel there are some marvellous sequences with Bergen providing the backdrop when a dismembered body is found, and the vistas of frozen rivers hypnotise with the disturbing groans of the ice settling.
There are also occasionally poetic images that are beautifully realised and quite disturbing; a flock of seagulls feeding on a dead body driven away by a gunshot, the arrangement of a cut-up corpse, and the grisly discovery of a human head on a snowman. Even the horrible primary murder weapon used by the antagonist, will be familiar to anybody who’s a fan of Dario Argento and Giallo in general (see 1993’s “Trauma”). More moments like this could have turned it into an ice-cold twist on “Hannibal” or a more atmospheric grim detective story, but that’s not the case…
Both Fassbender and Ferguson give solid performances, but they’re not given a lot to work with. Despite some attempts to flesh them out, they still feel a little flat. One main problem is that “Snowman” comes from a literary source where Harry is already well-defined with clear behaviour. In the film his alcoholism seems to come and go as necessary, and you’re kind of wondering why his superior is constantly covering for his irresponsible behaviour. Yeah, we’re told that he’s got great detection skills, but to be honest there’s not much evidence for that in this movie. Sheer luck more than Sherlock. It also makes moments where Harry brays like a donkey, and when he scoots around on a trolley, that bit more strange. (NB: Incidentally, this writer hasn’t read the book so this is all from a perspective of someone new to the character, but looking at quick research there are some significant differences from the novel that may please or upset readers.)
Perhaps the worst aspect though is the way the narrative totally wastes some excellent character actors. Simmons, Sevigny, and Jones barely get a handful of lines between them (any one of them could still be the killer though, so *Not a Spoiler*). Their contribution is so skimpy that you cynically wonder if they took the role for the location work. They really deserved much more material. Val Kilmer’s scenes are pretty oddball as well. Obviously over-dubbed, his sequences seemed to have been almost guiltily inserted and feel like they’re cut from a different direct-to-video movie. Speaking of dubbing, there does seem to be some suspicious post-production work here. Entire conversations are edited onto police radios for exposition, or as essential information. And one scene shown in the trailer (where Harry speaks directly to the killer himself) is conspicuous by its absence … unless that was some clever misdirection in the footage, but we doubt it.
The detective element itself seems muddled with an unconvincing conclusion, and Harry (or the film) never really displays any clever innovation or tricks to make it stand out from other similar stories. The last act does manage to wring out some tension (and more gorgeous cinematography), but it’s not enough to impress. More time is spent on Harry moping around and looking sad, than ramping up the serial killer aspect, which is precisely the element on which the film is being sold. Sadly it feels like it would have worked better as a miniseries or TV production rather than a high-budget good-looking film with superstar actors. Judging by several scathing reviews that does seem to be the general opinion.
Despite the nearly-two-hour running time, it still remains just about watchable. But it is far below what you would expect, and nowhere near the pedigree or the intensity of something like the “Dragon Tattoo” movies (either the Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara version). It might be unfair to compare it to those, but the intention seems to be there. Do you want to see a “Snowman”? Maybe not…