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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


The Snowman (2017) starring Michael Fassbender

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We’re walking in the air…

… no, not that The Snowman! This adaptation of the Jo Nesbø novel starts off in a remote house somewhere in snowy Norway many years ago. A young boy witnesses the abuse her mother receives at the hands of a police officer with whom she is having an affair. Later on, when the mother and her lover have a disagreement, the latter drives away in his police car. Mother - with her son in the passenger seat - pursues after him in her Volvo. However, during the drive, she lets go of the steering wheel and ends up skidding onto a frozen lake. When the ice suddenly cracks the boy gets out of the vehicle - but his mother remains inside, resigned to her fate of drowning in the frozen depths.

The story fast-forwards to winter in present-day Norway and focuses on Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic police detective who is bored with the lack of action provided by Oslo’s low murder rate. However, the period of calm is soon interrupted when he receives a mysterious envelope containing a sinister message. The writer cryptically says that he’ll build a snowman for his next female victim. Sure enough, a series of women start to turn up horribly murdered by a killer who keeps leaving snowmen at the scene.

As Harry starts investigating he teams up with a rookie named Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who is unusually enthusiastic to work with him on the case. He also uncovers a nine-year-old case file related to a similar series of slayings in Bergen, which were investigated by a detective named Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer).

To add to Harry’s challenges, as he focuses on the case he also tries to manage his fraught relationship with his ex-partner Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the delinquent son who lives with her.

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Squandered talent

There’s a fantastic amount of talent wrapped in The Snowman. Director Tomas Alfredson made his name with the superb Swedish vampire horror Let the Right One In. Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers and his longtime collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, performs editing duties. A previous Jo Nesbø book, Headhunters, was adapted into a fantastic action-thriller in 2011 by director Morten Tyldum. How did it all go so wrong?

The one thing that really hits the mark here is Dion Beebe’s cinematography. There’s a heavy emphasis on expansive aerial shots which atmospherically capture the vast, chilly and overwhelmingly white landscapes of wintertime Norway. Meanwhile, the night-time Oslo streets are cast in a hazy, film noir mood which is just perfect for all of the sinister goings-on. Unfortunately, the film’s pretty looks don’t hold up when the other aspects fail to pull their weight.

The most immediately glaring issues are the awful accents and performances. It seems to suffer from the same syndrome as Oliver Stone’s Alexander, only with most of the cast aping Michael Fassbender’s London drama school accent in lieu of a Norwegian one, as opposed to everyone putting on an Irish accent in lieu of a Greek one. However, even this isn’t always consistent; one or two (including Val Kilmer) have American accents, while Chloë Sevigny occasionally drops into an inexplicable Irish accent despite the fact that the actress hails from Massachusetts.

It’s absolutely distracting - and heightened by the fact that everyone gives such flat performances. Not that most of the actors have much to work with; it’s a crime as serious as anything that takes place in the story when Toby Jones is given a tiny amount of screen time in a role which is almost completely inconsequential to the story. In addition, at the risk of sounding cruel: boy, have Val Kilmer’s looks and talent deteriorated over the years. He should keep what little dignity he has left and retire from the profession.

A thriller without thrills

While the bad accents and acting are noticeable from the start, another major issue becomes glaring over time: for a thriller, The Snowman is perilously short on actual thrills. There’s plenty of gore and dismemberment: decapitated or blown-off heads, chopped-off arms, severed fingers and a garrotting. The trouble is that there’s no real tension until the climax, and even it is dragged down by a couple of notably clunky moments. There’s one moment here when a character comes a cropper by doing something that, had there been an iota of sense in the script, he would have known full well not to do.

Yes - as well as being as slack as pajamas three sizes too large, a lot of it just doesn’t hang together in a cohesive or logical manner. Quite a few characters and subplots are introduced throughout the story but they are never resolved satisfactorily. Take the opening sequence (explaining the killer’s background) as an example: we get a glimpse of a cruel relationship between the antagonist’s mother and this abusive policeman. It’s never satisfactorily explained why she puts up with the abuse, why she chases after him or why she suddenly lets go of the steering wheel and complacently lets herself drown. It’s just a bunch of confused motivations with no resolution elsewhere in the story.

Hot Butter? What?

As you can probably surmise from my review, The Snowman is a complete mess. If you’re coming into it expecting an exciting thriller, The Snowman would have been more aptly titled The Snoreman. However, it is strangely watchable - if only because it looks good and there’s something so utterly and bafflingly “off” about the whole endeavour that makes it strangely compelling. Why, for instance, does the 1970s electronic novelty pop tune Popcorn by Hot Butter play during two separate scenes? Why that particular choice of music?

Runtime: 119 mins

Dir: Tomas Alfredson

Script: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup, from a novel by Jo Nesbø

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny, James D'Arcy

Rating: ☆☆

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