A crime-mystery thriller based on a bestselling novel about a detective hunting down Norway’s first serial killer sounds like an excellent film on paper. Adapting a novel that acts as an entry in a long-standing series of stories that’ve been described as “page-turning narratives featuring Norway’s own Sherlock Holmes” should be simple and straightforward. You’d think it’d be easy for a talented cast and crew featuring Martin Scorsese, Tomas Alfredson, and Michael Fassbender, among many others, to subvert the clichés of the crime-mystery genre and produce a competent and enjoyable film at the very least.
But they didn’t.
The Snowman is easily the worst film I’ve seen this year thus far. It’s a slow excuse of a crime-thriller story, with poorly established characters, too many of the same tired clichés that’ve infected detective stories, and to top it all off, the cast never even filmed upwards of fifteen percent of the script, making the final product an incomplete mess.
Our main character, Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is a chain-smoking alcoholic who sleeps on park benches despite owning an apartment, and is also a bad dad to the kid he didn’t sire. I wish I could say more on this walking noir cliché of a character, but this the most we learn firsthand about our Norwegian Sherlock Holmes. We’re told by his sidekick, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), that he’s a talented detective whose previous cases are studied by up-and-coming cadets, but we never see Harry actually do any legitimate detective work aside from interviewing a few suspects. In fact, it’s Katrine who takes more initiative as a detective in this story, and she winds up making some stupid decisions that only serve to elongate the film’s length. You can’t call Harry Hole a tough-guy detective either, as his only physical conflict is at the climax against the titular Snowman, which starts off with The Snowman holding some hostages at a dining table. Here, our hero Harry has the perfect angle to shoot The Snowman in the head while their back is turned to him. So does Harry Hole, the legendary detective, the potentially competent tough-guy fighter, take his shot and kill The Snowman, saving the hostages he’s holding? Nope! Instead, our protagonist walks around, sits at the dining table, and gives the villain his gun. Apparently Norway has low standards for what makes a great detective, if the scriptwriters should be believed.
Our incompetent lead matches how poorly-assembled the “mysteries” of this detective story’s narrative are. The entire purpose of a detective story is to give the audience that satisfying “aha!” moment, where all the clues fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. However, such satisfaction cannot be achieved without that long, tense trail of clues that leads us to the answer. Throughout this film, there are a few moments which could’ve led to a great mystery that would be solved by our heroes, bringing them one step closer to taking down The Snowman. However, this film doesn’t respect the intelligence of its audience enough to let you sit down and think about the possible answers to these questions, and decides to show and/or tell you the answer almost immediately after introducing any potential mysteries, completely defeating the purpose of the film’s genre. It doesn’t help that the obvious red herrings are so clearly designed to mislead you that the only way I’d believe anyone thought our red herrings were The Snowman were if this was their first foray into the world of detective films.
You might be thinking, if the film isn’t a good mystery movie, maybe it could fall back on the ‘thriller’ classification. Well, let’s mention the introduction’s car “chase” scene, where two cars that look like they were digitally animated for a video game on the PlayStation 2 follow each other in the snow at top speeds of twenty miles per hour, because that’s our first taste of the thrills of this film. This is the sequence that’s designed to wet our pallet in preparation for the adrenaline-pumping nature of this film. This introduction is fitting, seeing as the most thrills we get out of this film after that car chase is the aforementioned final confrontation, which ends in a cheap, matter-of-chance, deus ex machina that results in our “happy ending”. Twenty minutes into this film I looked down at my watch, having thought we were at the forty minute mark of the movie. By the time the movie ended, it felt like this two hour film drained at least four hours of my life from me.
So between the mysteries which are answered immediately, and the thrills you could sleep through, you might think that this film is better labeled as a type of horror film, like something in the vein of a Hannibal Lecter story. After all, films like The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon have villains named “The Tooth Fairy”, “Buffalo Bill”, and of course, “The Hannibal Cannibal”, so maybe a story whose villain is called something as silly as “The Snowman” took inspiration from that great series, right? Well, if you watched the trailer for the film and saw that snowman built with a woman’s decapitated head, that’s about as good as the scares get. Sure, a couple fingers get cut off, and you see some long-dead corpses that are cut up at the joints, but if the film wanted to scare us with its villain, it sure as hell didn’t try hard enough to make them intimidating or fascinating. Christ, the film’s introduction shows us that the villain’s reason for starting this killing spree is the fact that they had daddy issues as a kid. Does a villain’s backstory get any more clichéd and weak than that?
In places, this film even fails on a technical level. Throughout the film, there’s a series of flashbacks to events that happened nine years prior, which are shot and edited in a way that implies they’re events happening in tandem with Harry Hole’s investigation, rather than before. These flashbacks feature detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer) who, like Harry Hole, is a massive alcoholic. For the unaware, Val Kilmer has recently had oral cancer, which he claimed was in the process of healing earlier this April, and so his voice in the film is dubbed by another actor. Whoever dubbed over Kilmer’s voice not only doesn’t deliver a convincing vocal performance thanks to his borderline monotone delivery, but both the voice actor and the editors didn’t bother to sync up the dub with Val Kilmer’s mouth movements! If you’re going to go through the trouble of dubbing your English-speaking actor with a different English voice, could you put some effort into your craft so that your actor doesn’t look like an amateur ventriloquist’s dummy?
I could go on and on about how The Snowman fails so poorly that even first-time amateur student films less than two minutes in length exceed the quality of this big-budget Hollywood picture on every level. However, it’s simply easier to tell you that it’s a thriller that isn’t thrilling, a mystery with no mysteries to ponder, and a sad excuse of an adaptation of the seventh entry in a series of best-selling novels of Norway’s great detective. The ten to fifteen percent of the film that hadn’t even been filmed wouldn’t have saved this movie from mediocrity had it actually been produced. When I wasn’t struggling to stay awake throughout this film, I was debating whether or not I should be walking out of the theater. There is, at least, one good thing I can say about this film: The Snowman stands as empirical evidence that no matter your talent, no matter your accolades, no matter the resources you have to produce a phenomenal piece of art, you can still just as easily create an absolute dumpster fire.
George Ibarra is a Senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English, along with a Certificate in Exile Studies.