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.)