Trailers for The Snowman made the movie seem like a game of cat-and-mouse between a brilliant detective and a frosty serial killer. It’s a familiar formula, but these stories can be thrilling when done well, and good execution covers up a lot of inherent flaws in these grim tales. The Snowman, sadly, is not done well.
A tonally inept mess that confuses daddy issues with mommy issues and presents it as profound, The Snowman lays bare the worst aspects of the psychological thriller, cashing in on the unsavory aspects of brutal crimes without the takeaway.
This review contains some spoilers for The Snowman.
Director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the book of the same name in the best-selling Harry Hole crime series follows Michael Fassbender as a troubled detective in Oslo. Fassbender, playing Harry Hole — a talented, roguish cop with personal problems (natch) — is tasked with identifying who’s been dismembering women and building snowmen with their heads.
It should be straightforward, but the interchange of events — the murders, Harry’s attempts to crack the case, and shadowy flashbacks to a previous string of crimes — are a snore. The killer’s ominous letter claims he gave “Mister Police” all the clues, yet it’s hard to tell how anything relates to anything.
Perhaps this is because Alfredson didn’t get to shoot “10 to 15 percent” of the screenplay, leaving huge holes in the story. “It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture,” AlfredsonAlfredson told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as early bad reviews began to land.
Alfredson did at least one thing right, though, as The Snowman sure is pretty to look at. Norway’s harsh winter beauty comes to life through his direction, which brings to mind David Fincher and Wes Anderson’s styles at the same time: horrific visuals centrally framed in a way that are both dripping with dread and uncannily twee. It’s an unusual style, one that’s interesting and effective — everything the plot is not.
If The Snowman’s plot had been more coherent, it might’ve helped atone for the way the story treats women. Typically, the satisfaction of a thriller in this style is piecing together with an on-screen detective the the clues of the case, and then bringing to justice a depraved criminal who’s done unspeakable things to his victims (usually women). So, it’s not the healthiest genre, but an engaging story and the feeling that there’s some larger force at work — some sense of judgment — go a long way. The Snowman lacks both.
Through methods that are hard to follow, Harry learns that the killer is hunting down mothers of children who don’t know the identity of their biological father; the killer blames these women for letting children grow up without fathers. When Harry explains to the killer that, actually, it’s the fathers who should be held accountable — they’re the ones who didn’t want anything to do with their kids, after all — it’s supposed to be a big reveal. This revelation shouldn’t be necessary.
The Snowman seems so pleased with this late reveal that it dedicates a final-act exposition to the fact that directing hatred at murdered women is misguided. It’s enamored with its assumed cleverness without making anything of it. The way the plot takes advantage of murdered women — a tired but true trope — doesn’t amount to anything more than murdered women, in service of a bland bad guy who had a crummy childhood. The killer’s psyche isn’t interesting enough to merit the cost. It’s a series of cheap thrills with little value.
The Snowman fails because it’s a boring, confusing film that takes advantage of women within the story without making anything of it, at a time when we really don’t need any more of that.
The Snowman premieres on October 20.