Director Tomas Alfredson’s previous films, Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, have been delicate attempts at genre reconstructions. Let the Right One In isn’t just a vampire film and Tinker Tailor isn’t just a spy film. They take the genre conventions and find a way to do something new. Sometimes it works like with Let the Right One In and sometimes it comes up a little short like Tinker Tailor, but you can at least see a careful hand at work. His latest film, The Snowman, goes off the rails so badly that you can’t help but wonder what drew him to the project in the first place. Despite a top-notch cast, Alfredson’s spin on the murder mystery is painfully convoluted and thematically incomplete. It’s a movie that’s always threatening to do something interesting before turning to the safety of conventions, leaving it stranded in a frozen wasteland of endless tedium.
Edited to the point of near incoherence (Alfredson says they were trying to figure out how to tell the story after being unable to shoot 10-15% of the script), the story follows weary Norwegian detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who teams up with young officer Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) to uncover a string of disappearances involving young mothers who are estranged from their children’s fathers. Meanwhile, in a conspiracy thread the film has no idea how to use, popular philanthropist Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons) may have a connection to the case, which involves the missing women being decapitated and having their heads being placed on snowmen.
It’s clear that The Snowman, to have any chance of working, needed to be a careful balancing act, and that somewhere in this mess of a movie, there’s a thematic through line about absentee fathers, neglectful mothers, and damaged children. Unfortunately, it has a hard time finding its way through the utter wreckage of a picture that’s struggling just to make sense on a narrative level let alone present a consistent subtext that will draw viewers in and allow us to make sense of the killer’s motives.
Whether it’s because the film is missing crucial scenes or because it was never that strong a story to begin with, The Snowman is an endless slog, struggling to do the mere basics of making us care about the characters or the stakes of their investigation. For example, we’re repeatedly told that Harry Hole is a brilliant detective and an addict, but his discoveries seem mundane and we never see him drink or do drugs. He’s burnt out, but the cause of his burnout is unknown and even a great actor like Fassbender appears to be at a loss with what to do with the character.
Since the picture never comes together like it should, everything that’s meant to be foreboding and terrifying comes off as unintentionally comic. It’s not like snowmen are the scariest thing in the world to begin with, and every ominous shot plays more like a parody than something that should make us afraid of the killer’s presence. Moreover, certain touches make absolutely no sense like the killer sending an oddly worded note to Harry and marking it with a crudely drawn snowman. It’s an artistic flourish that tells us nothing about anyone but is supposed to unnerve us all the same.
The worst part of The Snowman is when you’re halfway through the film and you realize no answer is going to make this tedious picture come together. No revelation about the killer, no discovery about his motives, and no climatic resolution will make up for this frigid, painfully dull movie, but you’ve still got an hour left to go. You know that if you were going to care about these characters, you’d be invested by now. You know that if you cared about the identity of the killer, you’d have formulated some theories in your head. The appeal of the “whodunit?” is that on some basic level, we want answers. But with The Snowman, all it gets from us is a “Who cares?”