There’s a frozen loogie at the heart of The Snowman. Tomas Alfredson’s Norwegiean-set serial killer thriller is marketing itself as a cat-and-mouse — or, to be thematic, a carrot-and-stick — competition between a murderer and a cop, played by two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender. In truth, The Snowman is both dumber than that and less fun.
When Fassbender’s drunken detective Harry Hole, the star of nearly a dozen pulp novels by Jo Nesbø, gets his first letter from the fiend, he… forgets about it. He spots one creepy Frosty outside the first victim’s house. Misses another. And never seems to stack any of those dots on top of each other, much, I imagine, to the butcher’s chagrin. Here he’s gone to the trouble of severing heads just to put them on a ball of snow, and officer hunting him doesn’t seem to care. The cigarette butts he leaves behind never get examined, his inventive motorized garrote is never analyzed or applauded. Harry doesn’t even comment when the desperately attention-seeking killer blasts the disco-era Moog hit “Popcorn” in his target’s home — twice. If Harry’s a brilliant policeman, I’m a champion ski-jumper.
Alfredson’s film is as blindingly white-on-white as a line of cocaine on an ’80s leather couch. Snow coats the mountains, and the cars, and the skinny, slippery countryside roads they speed on in a handful of gorgeous aerial shots. Snow turns bright party streamers pastel, and makes the trees look like bones. It shrouds the unnerving human statues of Oslo’s Vigeland park, swirls into misty flurries, and blankets Harry when he passes out in the slush after a vodka bender. He’s so tough, however, that he never zips his jacket — and judging from the way his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) scampers around in leather miniskirts, icicle immunity runs in the family. When Harry picks up her young son (Michael Yates), they go out for ice cream. Even when people are indoors, you can hear the muffled fuzz of flakes falling outside. (The sound design is terrific.) And yet, when fellow cop Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) announces her big mental leap that the murders happen only when it’s — gasp! — snowing, no one in Norway throws her under an avalanche.
Katrine has personal motives for taking on the case. Her father Gert (Val Kilmer) tried, and failed, to crack it himself. Harry is more self-serving. Solving crimes distracts him from drinking himself to death — “I apologize for Oslo’s low murder rate,” jokes his boss (Ronan Vibert) — and indeed, miracle of miracles, two-thirds of the way through the movie, his alcoholism is healed. (Until, I suppose, a sequel.)
Fassbender isn’t bad in the film. It’s just that he and the other leads seem to have thought they’d signed onto a serious script more like Alfredson’s earlier films Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then again, Alfredson is still the same director who added a dozen CG-animated cats into a living room scene in Let the Right One In for literally no reason, so maybe, Mr. Policeman, you had the clues all along. (Side-note: I’ve long argued that Matt Reeves’ remake Let Me In is is better than the Swedish original, in part because of Richard Jenkins’ devastating emotional anchor, and also the lack of cats. Perhaps this Snowman bungle will convince audiences to give the American version a fairer shot.)
A few of the supporting characters are enjoying themselves. JK Simmons is wonderfully loathsome as a local mogul attempting to secure Norway’s bid to host the Winter Sports World Cup. (Los Angeles’ #NoOlympics activists would be proud to see the opposition represented by such slime.) There’s a naughty doctor (David Dencik) who paints his toenails, a typically impish cameo from Toby Jones, and no less than Chloë Sevigny comes into frame beheading a chicken. Never fear, animal lovers. For payback there’s several — several! — scenes of doves and chickens eating human corpses, a vengeful carnivorousness I’d never even imagined until Alfredson made it so. As for why every actor talks in their ordinary accent as though they just immigrated to Oslo yesterday, that’s the least of the film’s problems.
There’s hints of deeper ideas under the surface. Katrine lugs around an unwieldy scanner that uploads photos and audio to a central police information bank, causing one to expect a tech-versus-gumshoe showdown that never happens. There’s so much boozing that I started to wonder if the country’s free healthcare was entirely allocated to livers. Abortion is a subplot, and the characters in the film discuss it so frankly that I chalked it up to Scandinavian progressivism, and only later learned that the number of women who receive abortions in Norway is just 1/12th the rate here in the States. As for how that figures into the plot, the film stays far away from politics. It’s more Heathcliff on the moors than Fred Phelps or Cecile Richards on the courthouse steps.
Ultimately, both these dark themes or any twinkling sense of play get buried under Alfredson’s frigid good taste. In the opening scene, a young boy stands on a frozen lake and hears the low moan of treacherous ice, an almost whale-song sound of pressure from pieces wanting to break loose. The whole film sounds like that. Literally, when people fire pistols near ski-lifts and scamper across deceptively safe-looking terrain. But also subconsciously, when you sense that The Snowman isn’t the dim, disappointing movie anyone involved intended to make.