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‘The Snowman’ Review: Michael Fassbender’s Detective Can’t Solve This Scandinavian Adaptation’s Laughable Missteps

Tomas Alfredson’s latest dreary thriller is no "Girl With a Dragon Tattoo."

Michael Fassbender in “The Snowman”

We’re witnessing the last laps of the Scandinavian crime wave, that border-crossing multimedia movement that washed so much frosty-to-glacial genre fiction onto our shores and screens. The detective heroes of TV imports “Wallander” and “The Bridge” walked into the low winter sunset, while the “Girl With Dragon Tattoo” cycle has stalled to a point where reboots have been decreed necessary. Adapting “The Snowman,” one of Norwegian scribe Jo Nesbø’s bestselling Harry Hole mysteries, isn’t the studios’ worst idea of 2017. Yet it does feel like a tardy one, and despite the industry heft thrown at Tomas Alfredson’s film, its execution leaves much to be desired.

Beyond these stellar opening credits, there stretch two hours of icy, mostly lifeless waste. Nesbø’s seventh Hole book provides the basis for this first movie, hence a certain front-loading of defective-detective tics. Michael Fassbender’s Harry is discovered blotto in an Oslo bus shelter, before stumbling back to a singleton’s untended apartment. “We found mold behind the walls,” shrugs the handyman spraying for dry rot. It’s literary mildew that spreads elsewhere: Harry has a troubled relationship with his gallerist ex (Charlotte Gainsbourg), bathroom cupboards stocked deep with Diazepam, and a stack of unopened letters on his desk, most urgent among them being taunting missives from a serial killer leaving snowmen behind at the scene of his crimes.

Sniggers at early trailers suggest these melting markers will be but one of this notionally sombre thriller’s weak spots. As Harry and equally harassed partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) rifle through years of missing-persons reports, we’re introduced to a whole grotto’s-worth of carrot-noses. There are forlorn-looking snowmen and irked-looking
snowmen; flashbacks featuring Val Kilmer as a pie-eyed detective predecessor uncovering remote mountaintop snowmen; at one point, there’s even a snowman bearing the severed head of Chloe Sevigny. “She was a free spirit,” eulogizes the deceased’s twin sister, played with a bathetic quality by a second Sevigny – and yes, this is the kind of film that thinks nothing of casting Chloe Sevigny as identical-twin chicken farmers.

Yet these rogue Olafs – chilling on the page, laughable when made literal on screen – are just the tip of the iceberg. Plot and screen soon throng with self-evident red herrings: James d’Arcy as an uptight husband, David Dencik as an oddball therapist with fuchsia-pink toenails, an underplaying J.K. Simmons as a local grandee trying to bring something called the Winter Sports World Cup to Oslo. It is the standard drift of Scandinavian crime fiction that all murders should point up the food chain towards corrupt, abusive or otherwise wonky administrations, but one of the biggest letdowns of “The Snowman” is how the promising Dencik-Simmons business winds up a narrative dead-end, somewhere between time-wasting feint and audience cheat.

Such non-sequiturs, coupled with three screenwriting credits, insinuate this wasn’t the smoothest adaptation process. It may have been a non-negotiable Nesbøism that the Snowman Killer is kept on hold for long spells while the leads look into one another’s pasts: novelists generally do thread-juggling better than mainstream movies. Yet there’s a pungent whiff of contrivance about the video-fingerprint technology that requires Katrine to lug ugly, heavy kit around, and inevitably yields the clue that cracks the case. That outcome conveniently resolves all Harry’s issues in one go, while leaving viewers with a dozen or more hang-on-a-minute loose ends to pick through on the grumpy trudge back to
the car.

If that process were livelier, “The Snowman” might have provided functional distraction, but as in his plodding “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Alfredson’s direction proves yawnsomely methodical, ticking off surviving plot points as though filling in some I-Spy Book of Scandinavian Crime Cliches. He permits one novelty – an unexpected revival of Hot Butter’s 1972 hit “Popcorn” – and has the advantage of screen-filling Nordic scenery, but his pacing makes the original Salander movies seem turbocharged. Mostly, he concerns himself with reproducing the atmospheric conditions of his breakthrough “Let the Right One In,” fogging up the viewfinder before the final reel’s choppy, unconvincing and desperately anticlimactic action.

The idiosyncratic performers might have boosted it, yet where Fassbender brought new, uncanny qualities to bear during his recent “Alien” android antics, here he’s stuck playing Composite Scandie Detective. Standing amid wide open spaces in woollens and a parka, his Harry stares frequently
into the middle distance, sporadically smoking for added notes of disquiet. Watching him wheel around one scene atop a library cart, we’re struck chiefly by the actor’s own boredom, and it’s a sticking point when your leading man appears bored an hour into a possible franchise-starter. After two hours of “The Snowman,” we know precisely why Harry Hole takes to drinking in bus shelters. We may even be tempted to join him there.

An after-the-goldrush project like this short-sells everyone eventually. Blink and you’ll miss Toby Jones, playing one more gobbet of exposition; Kilmer’s now ferociously lived-in presence seizes the attention during his five minutes of screen time, but he appears the victim of either dubbing or indifferent ADR; putting Gainsbourg in an LBD is the film’s
thin idea of style.

Any hope Ferguson might produce some consolatory warmth or heat with her co-star gets extinguished early on, and while it’s almost a relief when the film abandons its limp attempts to make Katrine interesting and instead generates another damsel-in-distress, it’s also an admission of defeat, marking the point at which Alfredson abandons any pretension to serious drama.

It’s a pity, as recent box-office charts have framed this as a boom-time for R-rated entertainments, but you can’t see a perfunctory, much-tinkered-with chore like this sticking round in multiplexes for long. Lacking the pulpy kick and verve of 2011’s native Nesbø adaptations “Headhunters” and “Jackpot,” “The Snowman is too ponderous to quicken the pulse, and too drably, insistently grey to provide an accidental campfest for would-be snowmen-spotters. For all the considerable nous assembled either side of the camera, no one can rescue it from its own mediocrity: if this were the opening act of a TV miniseries, you’d be exploring other channels some time between the second and third ad breaks.

Rating: C-

“The Snowman” opens nationwide on October 20.

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