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I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.


Because that’s Alfredson’s excuse, and as they go, it’s a fairly good one. Working Title’s involvement in the project raises eyebrows since they tend to run a tight, selective ship, but even they’re prone to missteps (Grimsby).  They had, after all, made a surprising success of the pared-down Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Alfredson, so there was probably no reason to think they couldn’t strike gold together again. Perhaps The Snowman was just too commercial. Or perhaps the serial killer genre, while still alive in print and Nordic realms, is spent on the big screen. Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a relative bust, after all. We might even lay its failure at the door of the Red Sparrow effect: the incongruity of English-speaking thesps portraying characters in non-English speaking countries. It might have been an everyday thing once, but today one can legitimately argue people should suck it and learn to read subtitles (or, if you really must adapt it, relocate it to the US, or Britain). 

 

The Snowman wasn’t merely ignored, though; it was visibly spurned. There are nice things to say about the movie – Dion Beebe’s cinematography is gorgeous. You might not be persuaded to live somewhere so chilly, but you can’t deny Norway looks incredibly picturesque. And the cast are eclectic, even if no one ever gets a chance to exactly shine – a movie with Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson in the leads, supported by JK Simmons, Toby Jones, David Denick, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Val Kilmer can’t be all bad. 


Unfortunately, there’s no point at which Alfredson (aided by the efforts of successive editors Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker – Scorsese was pegged to direct at one point, but made Shutter Island, so it was clearly a toss-up between schlock at Marty Towers that weekend) engages with the material. The killer’s modus operandi seems almost like a parody of such fare (leaving snowmen at the scene of his crimes, and eventually the head of a victim atop one) as does his motivation (he murders women who don’t want their offspring because his mother never wanted him – or so he has assumed, due to her effective suicide, corrected in Harry Hole’s rather trite reinterpretation that it was actually his absent, abusive father he resented; this element is a revision of the novel, where he murdered his mother on discovering his father wasn’t his father). 


Harry himself is a walking tortured genius, but without being especially interesting with it. He’s an alcoholic – when he doesn’t have a case, it’s that Sherlock Holmes thing but with booze rather than opiates – and comes armed with a string of failed interpersonal relationships, as admitted during a rather ludicrous expository climax in which the killer threatens his ex (Gainsborough) and her son (Michael Yates, not that one) unless Harry admits to his foibles (“Because I’m selfish. Because I’m an addict. There isn’t enough room for them”). Fassbender looks far too healthy for one abusing himself in such chronic fashion, and the movie has to be chalked up as yet another of his doomed attempts to kick start a franchise (Assassin’s Creed was also a bust, so he has to make do with Erik Lehnsherr for the time being). 


Not all the excisions from the source material are necessarily a bad idea. I certainly can’t fault not making Ferguson’s Katrina Bratt a suspect (or was this simply part of the 15% that didn’t get filmed?), which is surely the last resort of the writer desperate for red herrings. On the other hand, she’s unceremoniously killed off here, but goes on to become Harry’s boss in the novels (this being the seventh of them). Her being the daughter of Val Kilmer’s detective Rafto might have worked better if there was some degree of emotional investment in either character. Instead, there’s some tricksy time-shifting, such that we aren’t’ aware Rafto has been dead eight years until Harry finds out. There’s also the problem that poor Val, recovering from throat cancer, is hardly in the movie and has been unceremoniously dubbed, so the character seems even more disconnected from the proceedings.


If The Snowman were more engrossing, the lack of viable suspects among the main characters would probably have highlighted the actual culprit even earlier (Sea of Love syndrome, although at least there we had compelling lead performances propping up the weaknesses of the plot); Denick’s dodgy doctor and Simmons’ businessman only ever seem to be included as distractions, which leaves James D’Arcy’s grieving husband and Jonas Karlsson as Gainsbourg’s boyfriend, the latter further underlying the silliness of the proceedings (that the killer should be someone you know ought really to apply to the victim, rather than the cop investigating the case). 


I wouldn’t say The Snowman is straight-up incomprehensible, as some reviews have suggested, but itisdisjointed to the point of distraction. And there’s an additional problem when material this dour and tonally earnest is hinged to plotting so pulpy that it really needs a Paul Verhoeven to bring out the guilty pleasure side. As it is, I suspect Harry Hole will find his home, probably not dissimilarly to Tom Cruise’s failed attempt at a Jack Reacher franchise, on the small screen, where the material is given a chance to breathe and unfold with due care and attention to chronology. And who knows, if Netflix goes fishing for it, it might even end up airing in its native language.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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