The Snowman is made up of all the right parts. The cast, which includes Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and J.K. Simmons, is first-rate. The source material is an acclaimed best-selling Norwegian mystery novel. The story is the kind of brainy serial killer tale that's oh so hot right now. The filmmaker, Tomas Alfredson, is the guy responsible for the stunning vampire coming-of-age saga Let the Right One In and the moody espionage drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But, somehow, the movie itself is an inept misfire — the kind of entrancing train wreck that makes you long for a behind-the-scene tell-all to explain what, exactly, went so wrong. The selections below are just a sampling of what transpires in the most incoherent yet accidentally adorable serial-killer mystery ever.
1. Michael Fassbender plays a detective named Harry Hole. To be fair, it's not nearly as hilarious a name in Norwegian — here is the author of the acclaimed Harry Hole books, Jo Nesbo, pronouncing it as intended, with two syllables. But for reasons unknown and unfathomable, in making a movie that's in English but retains the Oslo setting, the team behind The Snowman decided to have everyone onscreen pronounce it to rhyme with "soul," making "Harry Hole" sound like the pseudonym of an adult film star who has a unique sense of humor and an anti-waxing preference. All sorts of should-be innocuous moments, like the one in which a character thunders about "the great Harry Hole," get transformed into punchlines.
2. Someone talks about a visit to "a pregnancy doctor." It's just one example of the kind of elegant, naturalistic phrasing that makes the film occasionally sound like its script was run through an outdated version of Google Translate.
3. The snowmen are just too adorable to be scary. Those "Mister Police" ads went viral for a reason, and it wasn't because the childlike writing and the doodle at the bottom were so inherently chilling. What is remarkable about the baddie's motif of choice is how cute the snowy figures remain despite all the movie's strenuous attempts to portray them as sinister. Ominous music swells as a victim sees, out her window, that a snowman's been built facing her house — and it looks absolutely delightful. The camera cuts forbiddingly to the grimacing snowman positioned near a gruesome discovery — and it feels like a wacky reaction shot.
4. People get their skulls shattered with a shotgun — twice. You've got to balance out all that winsome snowman imagery, after all. Much of the film's violence involves the mechanized garrote the killer uses to lop off body parts, but The Snowman is also so fond of the image of someone's head being blown to bits by a shotgun blast (something the Netflix series Mindhunter also recently featured) that it depicts the results twice. It's disturbingly gross, even in duplicate, but also notable for feeling like the setup to a shot that's featured prominently in the trailer (see below) but never in the final film. That would be the shot of a body with a snowman head, which, honestly, for reasons of aforementioned unintentional adorability, was probably better left on the cutting room floor.
5. Chloë Sevigny is in the movie for like five minutes. But what minutes! She slaughters chickens in a shed, delivers a few lines with an accent no one else is attempting, gets brutally beheaded, and then reappears because, it turns out, she's playing twins.
6. Harry proves himself to be Scandinavia's worst legendary detective. The Snowman is based on the seventh novel in Nesbo's series, after Harry's had time to establish his bona fides. Everyone onscreen affirms the main character's record, but all we get to see is a guy who doesn't even notice when the killer turns up in his apartment in disguise, playing the same music that was on at the last crime scene. Director Tomas Alfredson has freely admitted that he didn't have enough time to film the entire script and that "when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing" — which explains why an already convoluted story ends up nigh impossible to follow onscreen, Harry's motivations from scene to scene as opaque as the mystery.
7. Harry also proves himself to be Scandinavia's worst paternal substitute. Like many a brilliant fictional detective, Harry's personal life is a garbage fire — he's an alcoholic, and he has a complicated relationship with the ex, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who cares about him but has moved on to someone more reliable. But it's her teenage son, Oleg (Michael Yates), who becomes an accidentally funny symbol for Harry's disastrousness. Harry tries to maintain a stepfatherly relationship with Oleg, but keeps forgetting or flaking on their plans. And because we know nothing else about Oleg except that he's continually getting bailed on, the kid becomes a kind of slump-shouldered Charlie Brown caricature constantly trudging away, dejected, after being abandoned once again.
8. Rebecca Ferguson attempts to sneakily film someone with the world's most obvious camera. Early in the movie, we learn that the Oslo police are employing a new video system that syncs up every 12 hours with a central database. The cameras they're supposed to use are, inexplicably, the size of small briefcases, making the scene in which Ferguson's junior officer tries to surreptitiously plant hers in a bookshelf the stuff of comedy.
9. Val Kilmer appears in the movie, but his voice maybe...does not? Kilmer confirmed, in a Reddit AMA five months ago, that following "a healing of cancer," his tongue has been swollen and he didn't yet sound like himself. Perhaps due to that illness, in The Snowman it sure sounds like he's been fully dubbed over. But that's when he gets to talk at all — it's handled so clumsily, with the film attempting to cut around and disguise the moments when he speaks, that his appearances in a few flashbacks acquire a Twin Peaks–like strangeness. It's most marked during a sequence that contorts itself in order to have him arrive at a crime scene, acknowledge a colleague, and discover a body without saying a word.
10. Fassbender runs right out into the open during the big showdown, bellows "Come on, I'm ready," and promptly gets shot. By that point, it makes as much sense as anything else that's happened.
11. The credits roll and reveal all the incredibly gifted people who worked on this mess. The Snowman is executive-produced by no less than Martin Scorsese, who was, for a while, attached to direct. Three-time Academy Award winner Thelma Schoonmaker was one of the editors. The sometimes striking cinematography comes from Dion Beebe, who's an Oscar winner himself, having shot Chicago and Edge of Tomorrow and Memoirs of a Geisha. In some alternate universe, there's a good version of The Snowman garnering awards talk — but not this one.
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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