This serial-killer misfire takes all its cues from the crime genre playbook but gets the execution horribly wrong. There’s gruesome murders, a distinctive MO (the killer leaves a snowman outside his victims’ homes), forensic scientists as far as the eye can see and a troubled cop to make sense of it all. In short, the raw materials are there for a fun throwback of the kind that kept ’90s movie screens stocked with stiffs. Alas, the tension dissipates in a tangle of muddled subplots, sluggish pacing and some unusual decisions from director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The result isn’t even a Bone Collector, never mind a Seven.
The putative star of the show is Michael Fassbender’s disheveled detective Harry Hole. Lifted from the pages of author Jo Nesbø’s bestselling books, he’s a veteran Oslo crime-solver with genius-level insight, a boozily self-destructive streak and, for some reason, a plastic bag he carries with him from crime scenes to drunken binges and back again. This is a man with so much baggage, some of it is actual baggage. Hole has an estranged wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a son he struggles to connect with. These encounters are so awkward it’s almost a relief when a serial killer pops up and starts killing people, just to give the film a valid excuse to swerve.
But it’s in the more standard genre elements – the bloody gristle on a good crime thriller’s bones – that The Snowman really misses a trick. Few of the murders are shown first hand, missing easy chances to ratchet up the tension, and the trail of clues is regularly shunted aside in favor of murky plotlines about local politics and Hole’s family life. His sidekick, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), a whip-smart young gun to Hole’s jaded warhorse, is set up with a complex back story that may or may have significance to the current case. With so much to pack in, it’s unsurprising that the victims hardly get any play.
The rest of the highly watchable supporting cast isn’t especially well served, either. JK Simmons is haughtily suspicious as a thinly sketched media mogul, James D'Arcy glowers as a suspect, while Gainsbourg isn’t a natural fit for the role of aggrieved-but-still-doting spouse (look out for a bizarre sex scene that must have had her pining for the comforts of Nymphomaniac). The usually sparky Val Kilmer shows up in flashback as a mumbling detective with a distant glaze. He’s the only thing on screen with less facial movement than the snowmen.
Where Alfredson does bring his substantial chops to bear – this is the director who crafted the flair-filled Let the Right One In – is in realising the film’s rich visual landscape. Norway’s ice-caked fjords and valleys shimmer in the frost, while Oslo’s high society is bathed in Collateral cinematographer Dion Beebe’s rich lighting. It’s not enough to salvage the story, and it’s unlikely to launch the hoped-for Harry Hole franchise, but Norway comes off well.