The weather outside is frightful in The Snowman, the long-gestating movie adaptation of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s 2007 literary smash hit, which has sold in the millions. Directed by Swedish left-field hitmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), this is a classy, polished production with a starry international cast led by Michael Fassbender. It was previously earmarked for Martin Scorsese, who now has an executive producer credit.
But if production partners Universal and Working Title are hoping for a Scandi noir blockbuster to rival David Fincher’s 2011 version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, they are heading for disappointment. For all its high-caliber talent mix, The Snowman is a largely pedestrian affair, turgid and humorless in tone. The cast share zero screen chemistry, much of the dialogue feels like a clunky first draft and the wearily familiar plot is clogged with clumsy loose ends. While Nesbo’s novel was a pulpy page-turner, formulaic but effective, Alfredson and his team have somehow managed to drain it of tension.
Of course, countless mediocre crime yarns have scored big at the box office. Director, author and star probably have a sufficiently large following between them to make The Snowman into a commercial hit, but nobody comes out of this production with their reputations enhanced. Critical reaction will be frosty, and Universal’s reported hopes of launching a new franchise seem likely to melt away. Rolling out across much of Europe and the Middle East this week, Alfredson’s chilly killer thriller is set to open Oct. 20 in the U.S.
A killer is targeting the young mothers of Oslo, building a sinister snowman as a calling card before he strikes. Maverick detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) is officially between cases, but he inveigles his way onto this one by shadowing a new arrival at the city’s police department, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson). Following a long trail of clues, the pair expand the investigation to include different cities and unsolved murders stretching back decades, soon realizing they have a serial killer on their hands. Their inquiries turn up murky connections between wealthy industrialist Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), creepy doctor Idar Vetleson (David Dencik) and boozy detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer), who died years before in an apparent shotgun suicide.
In parallel with his police duties, Harry is also struggling to stay on good terms with his estranged ex-wife Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his sulky teenage stepson Oleg (Michael Yates) and Rakel’s new partner Mathias (Jonas Karlsson). But as the murder investigation deepens, the killer gets Harry’s family in his sights, and their deadly cat-and-mouse game turns personal. Meanwhile, Katrine is revealed to have a secret history that throws her interest in the case into question.
Fassbender plays the kind of rule-breaking antihero who ticks every cliche on the flawed-genius screen cop checklist. Harry’s crime-fighting instincts are brilliant but unorthodox, which means his stuffy bosses indulge him while female co-workers find him dangerously irresistible. He may be too much of a self-absorbed drunk to keep his promises to his ex-wife and stepson, but both still adore him anyway. He is a chain-smoking alcoholic who routinely passes out on park benches, yet strangely still possesses the athletic stamina to chase villains across vast frozen landscapes wearing nothing but tastefully understated Nordic knitwear.
In its favor, The Snowman looks magnificent. Norway is a gift to Alfredson, with his strong eye for snow-covered landscapes and stylishly bare modernist interiors. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer Maria Djurkovic transform the homely urban geography of Oslo into a Nordic Gotham City of deep shadows, towering churches and cavernous municipal halls, while the vast hinterland beyond the city becomes a majestic winter wonderland of frozen lakes and snowy peaks.
The Snowman also boasts a fine cast, though its leaden script and perfunctory characterization leave scant room for subtle performances. Arriving on set direct from Assassin’s Creed, Fassbender coasts through the movie with his roguish charm on autopilot. Ferguson wrings a little more complexity from her traumatized avenging angel, but Gainsbourg wanders through her scenes in a daze, as if she has accidentally stumbled onto Alfredson’s shoot en route to her latest self-lacerating encounter with Lars von Trier. Simmons, Chloe Sevigny and Toby Jones are all underused in glorified cameos. And Kilmer’s minor role is just plain bizarre, with his raddled appearance and mannered dialogue that seems to be overdubbed in places.
Screenwriters Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Soren Sveistrup stick fairly closely to Nesbo’s plot, with a few minor changes and shifts of emphasis. Thus The Snowman only has one major secret to keep us in suspense: the identity of the killer. Even for viewers unfamiliar with the book, this not-so-shocking surprise becomes pretty easy to call about midway through the story, leaving Alfredson to fill another hour with increasingly silly red herrings and pointless blind alleys.
In a movie that had more layers, deeper questions and more fully evolved characters, such predictable touches would not necessarily be fatal lapses. But The Snowman does not do subtext. Indeed, its by-the-numbers script barely qualifies as text. When the killer’s risible psychological motivation is finally revealed, it feels as if the screenwriters began reading Freud for Dummies, but did not even get to the end. Alfredson has yet to make a terrible film, and The Snowman is certainly not terrible, but it falls way short of what a superior big-budget thriller should deliver.
Rated R, 119 minutes