The Snowman movie review: 'Michael Fassbender's best efforts are stymied by a film that falls oddly flat'
This frosty Jo Nesbo murder mystery fails to live up to its early promise, says Paul Whitington
I don't know about you, but I'm a big fan of snowy procedurals. From the grisly delights of Fargo to the brooding swagger of Taylor Sheridan's 2017 film Wind River, there's something pleasingly exotic about violent crimes in frosty climes.
The sight of virgin snow bespattered with the blood and innards of some unfortunate victim is wonderfully graphic, cinematically speaking, and Tomas Alfredson's Snowman begins by promising ghoulish delights in this regard. It is based on the works of Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian literary powerhouse whose crime novels have sold 30 million copies worldwide and counting.
Harry Hole is his most celebrated character and as The Snowman begins, the Oslo police detective appears to be at a low ebb. He comes to on a park bench next to an empty bottle of vodka, brushes the snow off himself and heads into work. His immediate superior is not best pleased with Harry (Michael Fassbender), who's been absent without leave for a week, but the bleary detective is brilliant, so everyone puts up with him. Like Sherlock Holmes, Harry grows depressed and listless when deprived of a good murder case, but something particularly juicy is about to present itself.
When a woman goes missing in the suburbs, Harry accompanies a rookie detective called Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) to the crime scene.
He's not supposed to be on the case, but that doesn't stop him poking around and talking to the woman's little girl, who tells him her parents had argued. That sounds like standard stuff, because as Harry tells Katrine, nine times out of 10 it's the husband. But he's puzzled by the sight of a freshly made snowman whose frowning face is pointing towards the house, and when he asks the little girl she tells him she didn't make it.
So who did? Katrine is from Bergen and points out that the snowman, the age of the missing woman and several other factors bear striking similarities to a string of murders in the 1990s in which the bodies of victims were carefully dismembered and arranged in freshly fallen snow. Could this be the work of a serial killer? Harry is beginning to think so but, meanwhile, Katrine appears to know more than she's letting on and is inexplicably obsessed with a sinister business mogul called Arve Stop (JK Simmons).
Harry has his own worries. He has recently split from his partner, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but misses her and has formed a strong attachment to her teenage son. This ready-made nuclear family seemed to offer Harry a chance at personal redemption, but now she's taken up with a new man who seems to have all the answers.
Like all the great detectives, Harry is a colourful, infuriating, difficult character and Michael Fassbender works hard to make him seem interesting and credible. But his best efforts are stymied by a film that falls oddly flat once it has established its storyline and is rather short on drama and action. Its screenplay is co-written by Peter Straughan, who worked so successfully with Tomas Alfredson on their wonderfully rich adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but has made odd decisions in doctoring the plot of Jo Nesbo's book and does a bad job of concealing the killer's identity.
The talents of fine actors like Joby Jones and JK Simmons are thrown away in one-dimensional roles, and Chloe Sevigny makes a perplexingly brief appearance as a pair of ill-fated twins. Most oddly of all, a glassy-eyed Val Kilmer turns up, (at least it says it's him in the credits), playing a Bergen policeman who had earlier investigated the killer's crimes. All flounder ineffectually in a film that was shot almost two years ago and feels like it was nervously edited. None of the elegance and composure of Alfredson's other films is evident here and there's a puzzling lack of chemistry too between Fassbender and the normally excellent Ferguson.
Having said that, it's all perfectly watchable, but feels like it belongs on a streaming service or the television. And the baroque promise of the opening scenes never really materialises.
The Snowman (15A, 119mins) ★★