In theory, The Snowman at least offers a fertile setting for Tomas Alfredson’s brand of frosty formalism. His thrillers Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stand as modern genre classics for their balance of atmospheric gloom and methodical parceling out of narrative information. But the director’s latest, an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 crime novel The Snowman, is staggeringly ill-conceived. It’s a slapdash work so haphazardly assembled that it’s stunning to see Thelma Schoonmaker credited as an editor on it. Alfredson himself has gotten out ahead of the film to acknowledge its failure and pin the blame on being unable to shoot the entire screenplay, but even without his caveat it’s clear that The Snowman is missing so much basic connective tissue as to be rendered almost completely inexplicable.
The film centers around the unfortunately named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), a cookie-cutter detective whose alcoholism is tolerated by those around him solely because of his ability to solve even the toughest crimes. That aspect of Harry’s professionalism, however, is largely taken on faith. He spends most of the film in a dazed rut of either drunkenness or uneasy stabs at sobriety. And when Harry finally lands a new case, tracking a woman who disappeared on a snowy night without a coat or purse and with the door to her flat left open, he reacts dismissively, pithily noting that the woman’s husband should be questioned and that investigators should simply wait for her to turn up one way or the other. Only when his new partner, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), ties the disappearance to a series of cold-case murders does Harry find the motivation to actually get down to work.
The premise is simple enough, and The Snowman moves with a deliberate pace that gives the impression of a steady hand at the wheel, but the film’s structure falls apart as soon as it’s erected. Flashbacks jarringly disrupt the narrative flow, flinging the story back nine years for a look at one of the early murder cases being researched by another detective (Val Kilmer, in a baffling performance of heavily overdubbed dialogue groaned through clenched teeth). These superfluous scenes exist solely to set up a flat twist, but even the main story is similarly distracted in how it unfurls; it also abounds in so many loose threads, chief among them the serial killer’s calling card of building snowmen at crime scenes, a psychological quirk that, because it goes wholly unexplained, is too absurd to ever engender discomfort.
The bungling of that recurring motif is indicative of a film so poorly structured that it’s difficult to tell which of the many once-glimpsed aberrations of character and plot are intended quirks or the beginnings of something that was abandoned. Entire subplots seem at once vital and incidental, such as the relationship between Harry and his ex-wife, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their troubled teenage son, Oleg (Michael Yates). Harry’s guilt and shame over losing them is meant to haunt him and inform every aspect of his being, but as Rakel and Oleg clumsily float in and out of his life, there’s only a sense that they don’t matter much to Harry whenever they’re off screen.
Likewise, the implication of a regional magnate, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), in the murders introduces a thematic angle that isn’t carried very far; the entire plotline leans on vague, generic class resentment, largely portraying the character as nothing more than a kooky creep. Even basic continuity breaks down throughout The Snowman, as in a late shot of Harry receiving a load of sealed envelopes from the killer that are never opened because Harry has already guessed the person’s identity, calling into question why we needed a close-up of these nondescript envelopes in the first place.
The killer’s targeting of promiscuous women who’ve had abortions adds a nominal strain of social commentary to the proceedings, albeit one that the filmmakers never explore beyond the generically ostentatious posing of female corpses. This is the kind of material that David Fincher might have been able to save, perhaps by identifying its inherent absurdity and indulging and critiquing it in equal measure. Alfredson, on the other hand, attempts to focus on the lonely souls who populate the frigid Norwegian landscape that serves as the film’s backdrop, leaving a stultifying seriousness that only calls further attention to all the narrative lapses. Far from a worthy follow-up to Alfredson’s previous work, The Snowman feels like a marginally classed-up version of one of Steven Seagal’s direct-to-video efforts, a zombielike animation of moldy genre clichés without narrative or thematic motivation.