The Snowman ruined both snow and Michael Fassbender for me

By Karen Gordon


Despite its drawbacks, I’ve come to find a snowy winter beautiful, especially when I’m watching it captured in all of its white and blue tones on the big screen.  

AND Michael Fassbender is one of my absolute favorite actors. 

So you’d imagine that watching Michael Fassbender walk around in a cozy sweater in snowy Norway for a couple of hours would be enough for me. 

But, unfortunately, The Snowman – this week’s worst movie of the year (there’ll be a few more, I’m sure) - stood between me and my ability to enjoy Fassbender In The Snow.  

Michael Fessbender in the snowy Norwegian wood. You'd think that would be enough

Michael Fessbender in the snowy Norwegian wood. You'd think that would be enough

The Snowman is adapted from the 2007 best-selling mystery novel by Norway’s Jo Nesbo, one of the hottest names in mystery novels these days.  It centers on one of his characters, a seasoned detective named Harry Hole. (The Norwegian pronunciation has more dignity. Unfortunately, the movie Americanizes his name. Oh well.)

The Snowman is actually the seventh novel centered on the detective. But since it was the first to break through in North American and the U.K., the producers have chosen to go with it as their first film.

If you’ve read any of the books, then you know that Hole is a character right out of any film noir. He’s the classic wounded hero: brilliant and driven, but flawed/ focused on his work the point of obsession (and, by the time we get to The Snowman, an alcoholic fully in the grips of his disease).

But, if you just see the movie, then you might wonder why anyone would hand Harry the car keys, never mind a major murder case. The lack of context for the character of Harry is just one of the many crimes perpetrated on the audience in this puzzlingly poor adaptation. 

When we first meet Harry, he’s waking up in a skating shack and we get the sense that he was so drunk that he passed out there.  We’re not the only ones who make that assumption. There’s a note, childish and menacing, indicating that he’s being observed in his drunken state. And in place of a signature, there’s a drawing of a cute snowman. 

Harry goes to the office, and we discover he’s been away for a week, presumably on a bender. 

His boss has covered for him, but actually doesn’t really seem that perturbed. No one really does. The Norwegians seem more polite than Canadians, for heavens sake. Harry goes for a smoke and meets the new kid: a hot-shot young (and beautiful) detective, Katrine Bratt, played by Rebecca Ferguson.  A non-smoker, she’s hiding out in the smoking room because it calms her down or something. She’s also carrying her files in a bag that’s opened just enough so Harry can see the word “CONFIDENTIAL” sticking out.  Clearly, we’re in good hands here.    
She’s on her way to a crime scene and, for some reason, lets Harry hitch a ride, on the condition he wait in the car.  Fat chance. The crime is serious. A woman has gone missing from her house in the middle of the night, seemingly walking out leaving her young daughter asleep in bed.

Harry wanders into the house andquestions the little girl while Katrine listens on the stairs. (No one seems to find the idea of leaving the traumatized little girl on her own a problem.) 

Wandering the property he finds that a little snowman has been built on the lawn that matches the drawing in the note that was left for him. And the woman’s scarf has been tied around the snowman’s neck.  Aha! A few more days and a few more missing women, each with the signature of the little snowmen and Harry, with his personal note from the Snowman, takes charge of the case. 

The Snowman, the movie, tosses and turns and moves at a glacial pace as it throw a bunch of gruesome murders and traditional candidates for bad guy at us - rich, powerful, sleazy, oddball, etc., etc.  Then there are the flashbacks. These take us to a different location and a different allegedly brilliant and alcoholic detective played by Val Kilmer as he investigates a series of gruesome murders of women. 

Meanwhile Harry wanders around looking for messages, and gets affection he doesn’t seem to deserve from his purring, sensuous ex, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and her teenage son, even though he forgets every plan they make. He gets bailed out by his ex’s new beau, a doctor named Mattias, who wears a cooking apron with fish on it. Is there something fishy about Mattias? Or is this whole thing kind of fishy?

Nothing in The Snowman really adds up. It’s like someone pulled every fifth page out of the script and no one noticed. Without establishing who Harry is and why he’s stumbling around in the dark recesses of his own mind, never mind this film, what do we have to hang on to? (In fact, director Tomas Alfredson has already publicly complained about being rushed by the studio and leaving 10-15% of the movie unfilmed).

But let me take a moment to say a few nice things about the movie. It’s very well cast with the likes of J.K. Simmons, Chloë Sevigny and Toby Jones. And whatever the producers paid Michael Fassbender, it wasn’t enough. Fassbender gives his lost character the soulful quality that gives us reason to care for him even when the movie is flailing around him. Harry Hole is not in search of redemption in this movie. He knows he’s screwing up at times and becomes as still and quiet as a meditating monk.  He’s too numb for self-hatred and there’s enough of a spark in him to believe he’s looking for a way to be better. 

Watching him is the best thing about this movie.  And the cinematography is beautiful. 
Beyond that, there are mysteries to be solved, but most of them are for the audience.  How does a guy who drinks so much that he falls asleep in the gutter wake up looking like he’s had a hot shower, a shave followed by a proper use of good quality skin care products?  If Harry’s such a hot-shot detective then why does he miss one of the major clues that everyone in the audience can see? 

How does Tomas Alfredson, the director who made one of the best spy movies of the last decade (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and one of the best vampire movies ever (Let the Right One In) make this mess? How involved was executive producer Martin Scorsese, whose Oscar-winning editor Themla Schoonmaker, presumably knows her way around a good story?

It’s a mystery. 

The Snowman. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Starring Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Val Kilmer. Opens wide Friday, October 20.