A tonal hodgepodge ever at odds with itself, Tomasz Thomson’s unctuous, tongue-in-cheek debut, Snowman’s Land, is far too self-satisfied with its jokes for any to really be funny. The setup is pure Beckett-absurd, though without any of the master’s sophisticated existentialism, which even managed to make it into In Bruges, the last film of this kind. Two schlubby, odd-couple hitmen retreat to the remote Carpathian Mountains to sit around and wait for their proverbial Godot, eventually finding themselves at war with the locals and the mobsters who hired them. The whole thing plays out with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality meant to rapidly ingratiate itself with audiences keen for a cheap laugh, but the air of condescension produced as a byproduct ultimately overtakes the (possibly intended) good-natured humor of the surface. It’s the classic Guy Ritchie problem: By playing the hyper-violent exploits of dumbed-down working-class gangsters for quick laughs and cheap thrills, you elevate yourself to some lofty, snobby height above the milieu, congratulating your audience for being in on the joke and for being “better” than these creeps and losers. And making your central loser “lovable” only goes so far.
The loser in this case is Walter, a greasy umlaut-metal type who botches a hit and is forced into early retirement. The screenplay is over-determined, bending over backward to always get him to the place he needs to be at, and by the time he arrives in the frigid wilderness, it’s hard to understand exactly why he’s there. Of course, it doesn’t matter: The film wants an isolated setting and once it’s found one, it settles right in. Walter convenes with Mickey, his younger, sketchier, more obnoxious counterpart, and the remainder of the film finds Walter taking on the role of infallible professional in contrast to his gaffe-prone partner—an odd turn of events given that the film’s first act expends so much effort to establish Walter as incompetent. In any case, Walter and Mickey hang around a spacious mountaintop abode awaiting their boss’s return from a business trip, drinking scotch and leafing through the personal belongings of his wife. When she shows up after what she describes as a three-day orgy with strange men and beautiful women (“I didn’t know anyone could fuck like that,” she says in a bizarre passage), Mickey quickly drugs her drink and lays into a graceless seduction. When she shoots herself in the head during some daring gun-related foreplay (shades of Spring Breakers), our hapless heroes endeavor to cover up the killing before her mob-boss husband gets wise.
It’s all quite self-consciously droll, but until an odd third act reminiscent of Rio Bravo, the pace of Snowman’s Land is far too sluggish to properly entertain. Languor and inertia are the key ingredients of any aspiring existential comedy, but they’re difficult qualities to get right. Here their poor integration creates a feeling of blankness and, unfortunately, boredom. And this kind of jokingly severe shock-comedy, where torture is meant to be uncomfortably amusing and at least two shootings in the head are framed as straight-up sight gags, requires a very precise balance of tone that the film simply can’t pull off. It’s either too ha-ha broad, which undercuts tension and reduces the stakes to zero, or too flatly unfunny, which feels like bungled drama torn from a different movie, to ever register as the darkly funny thing it intends to be.