The Snowman: Walking on Thin Ice, by Tyler Smith

There comes a moment in Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman in which a man is faced with his own failings, particularly towards his ex-girlfriend and her son. He quietly says, “They deserved better.” I found myself thinking something similar as I left the film, except I wasn’t thinking about any of the specific characters. Rather I was thinking of the actors, and the composer, and the editor, and the cinematographer. These artists are extremely talented and committed themselves to this film, only for the end result to be a confusing, uninspired, abrupt, derivative slog that doesn’t seem to know where to go, so it chooses to go everywhere. Alfredson is likely best known for his 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that is as deliberate as this one is meandering. Where that film was crackling with forward momentum, this is a complete misfire.

Well, maybe not a complete misfire, now that I think of it. So many elements are working in its favor. First of all, it is visually striking. The way that cinematographer Dion Beebe shoots the tundras of Norway, with snow blowing across the frozen ground, sets the stage for an emotionally stark, unflinching crime story. There’s something cinematic about the cold, and Beebe squeezes every ounce of punishment out of this landscape. It is a visually beautiful film.

Then there’s the acting. Michael Fassbender has shown himself – in films like Steve Jobs and the X-Men series – to be a capable leading man, able to hold the audience’s attention with the thousand yard stare of the deeply broken characters he embodies. Here he imbues his character, Harry Hole, with a certain aimlessness. Harry is a brilliant detective, but also an alcoholic, and he’s quickly becoming more the latter than the former. Fassbender finds just the right amount of self loathing to incorporate into his performance, as the character slowly feels himself turning into something he never wanted to be. On paper, Harry is not merely conventional, but a collection of traits that never quite add up to a full-fledged character. That Fassbender is able to bring these elements together into what would appear to be a genuine human being speaks to his ability as an actor.

The other performances are solid, as well. Both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rebecca Ferguson play very broken women, each with their own burden to bear. They have both been let down by men, but continue to strive to make a better life for themselves and their family. Both of these actresses play their characters with an inner strength that is only occasionally betrayed by sadness. Tinker Tailor actors Toby Jones and David Dencik are both fine (with Dencik being a particular standout), but aren’t given nearly enough to do. J.K. Simmons, perhaps the most reliable actor in Hollywood, plays a most standard character; the wealthy businessman who speaks about family values while constantly exploiting young women. All of these actors do what they can, but are given such thin archetypes that there’s just not much for them to do. It’s impossible to swim in a foot of water.

I should also briefly mention Val Kilmer, who plays a detective named Rafto. He is a lot like Harry, only a little further down the road. He is a drunk, and the years have not been kind to him. Kilmer’s performance – from his (heavily ADR’d) cadence to his general demeanor – is just bizarre. At times it is incredibly distracting, and yet part of me wanted the film to veer off and follow this detective for the rest of its duration. Some might find Kilmer’s choices baffling, including me, but his character at least has a pulse and feels unique, which is more than can be said for other elements of the film.

How a film with this many talented artists can fail so completely is beyond me. The film definitely feels like it has been tinkered with. There are some story leaps – papered over with voiceover – that never quite make sense. There are sections of the film that are very slow – perhaps even meditative, if I’m feeling generous – that are then interrupted by a quick, clumsy montage meant to move us forward. It’s all so messy and unfocused, causing shifts in tone that the film is unable to sustain. But the actors, the cinematographer, composer Marco Beltrami, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker all try their best to bring everything together into a cogent whole, but the screenplay just fails them too often. Indeed, they deserved better.

The story itself is standard airport paperback fare. There are a string of snowman-themed murders, many of them particularly grisly. Harry Hole is brought in to investigate, only to find himself pulled deeper into the intrigue. As he investigates high society and shady doctors, the list of possible suspects grows. There are red herrings, false flags, and dead ends. It’s everything that a mystery should be. As a fan of these types of stories, I can appreciate the formula. The truly great films can even make you forget that you’re watching a generic story, and you can let yourself get caught up in the mystery. And indeed I often found myself invested in finding out who the killer was, but more out of a general curiosity than any particular engagement with the characters or the world.

Then, when the climax comes, it’s so out of the blue and is handled so clumsily that I was having a hard time figuring out exactly what happened and how. By the time I was able to sort of get my bearings, the credits were rolling. That combined with an explanation that defied reason amounts to a deeply unsatisfying film. And, with this film based on one in a series of Harry Hole mysteries, the last scene hints at the possibility of more films to come. My hope is that, barring a quick reboot, the Harry Hole film series dies here. And there’s no doubt that the death would be ruled a suicide.

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