It may only be October, but THE SNOWMAN is going to top a lot of critics’ lists as the worst film of the year, and rightfully so. Its mess of a screenplay, confusing direction, and labored acting makes this adaptation of the 2007 book written by Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo an utter debacle. It’s so bad, it’s hilarious, and you can listen to two of the funnier reviews of it here and here. (Kudos to Eric Hardman of the YouTube video review program entitled "That Kid at the Movies" for making me laugh out loud a number of times with his takedown!) Still, THE SNOWMAN should have been great and therefore needs a thorough autopsy. And oh yes, there will be spoilers. Lots of them.
All the makings were there for a sharp thriller in the style of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the George Smiley novels. Nesbo’s original novel concerns a shrewd but hard-drinking veteran detective named Harry Hole (more on that later) who is being taunted by a serial killer who is doing away with troubled moms using a homemade snowman at the crime scene to serve as his calling card. Even better, the book dives deeply into the police department politics, not unlike Sheriff Brody’s feuds with the mayor and town council in the early part of JAWS. The SNOWMAN is the seventh in the series of Nesbo’s books with Hole as the protagonist and the tension of his page-turners come in as he examines Hole’s expertise at his job, his self-destruction in his personal life, and the power struggles that occur within the police department and among the local officials.
To lose all that “palace intrigue” is just one of the mistakes made here. In fact, there are 11 huge blunders that sank this adaptation:
THE ADAPTATION OMITS MOST OF WHAT MADE THE NOVEL WORK
Whenever a movie fails, you can start with the screenplay. You’d think that starting with ripe source material is key, but what if you ignore it? That’s what happened here. The adaptors kept all the clichéd stuff, like a brilliant detective who alone knows what is going on, and lost all the items that made the book more special. The loss of most of the internal politics is one of the bad choices the screenwriters made here. Granted, a two-hour movie cannot have everything, but scripters Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sveistrup would have been wiser to keep the fresher aspects of the procedural.
They also should’ve kept the Katrine Bratt character that Nesbo wrote. In the novel, she’s a superb detective, Hole’s love interest, as well as a corrupted official who ends up in a psychiatric unit. In comparison, the movie Bratt comes off as an inept cop, a snide harpy, and ultimately, an all too easy victim of the killer’s.
Additionally, the screenplay is marred irreparably by introducing side stories and back stories that drift away like the blizzard snow does in so many scenes. Val Kilmer is introduced as a brilliant detective in flashbacks but his character has only a handful of lines and we have no clue as to what makes him so special. J.K. Simmons’ character of the smarmy politician Arve Stop is one big red herring but little else, and then the script goes and forgets all about him in the last half hour. The script also seems disjointed throughout, possibly due to what director Tomas Alfredson confessed during the press junket. He admitted that changes in weather, the crew, and other production problems led to him not being able to shoot 10-15 % of the working script. And...scene.
THE PROTAGONIST IS ALL SURFACE AND NO SOUL
It’s easy to give an antihero flaws like alcoholism and arrogance, but has the screenwriter fleshed out what drives the character's self-destruction? This movie never bothers to tell us how Hole truly fell into such a dismal state. Was there no police counseling, AA meetings, or even a friend there to help him? And tell us, what makes him brilliant? Most of his deductions seems rather obvious to any armchair detective in the audience. Why does he wear the same clothes in every scene? Is he so out of it even when he's sober that he lacks basic social awareness? And what kind of detective walks into the bedroom of a child who's just lost her mother, with no adult supervision, braying like a mule upon seeing her in a donkey mask as she's hiding from the world?
Worst of all, his name is Harry Hole. I’m not sure that even the porn industry would find that name acceptable in a movie.
THE PROTAGONIST IS PLAYED AS A ONE-NOTE BORE
Is there something wrong with Michael Fassbender these days? Is he getting bored with acting? Since his Oscar nomination for STEVE JOBS in 2015, he seems to be uninterested in building definitive characters. Too inert in THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, a one-note asshat in SONG TO SONG, Fassbender even seemed dispassionate playing the dueling leads in ALIEN: COVENANT. Here, he’s even less invested as he mutters his lines through clenched teeth or in vague whispers. Maybe he knew the final script was a stinker and he’s trying to lay low. Still, his somnolent approach drags the material down further.
AN IMPRESSIVE CAST IS GIVEN NOTHING TO PLAY
There are a lot of fine actors in this film, and they're given precious little to sink their teeth into. Charlotte Gainsborough plays “the wife” character and she’s mostly window dressing until the very end. Acclaimed British thespian Toby Jones shows up for virtually one scene, lasting about a minute, and is given only a handful of lines. Why cast such an exceptional talent in such an unexceptional part? And poor Chloe Sevigny…she plays one of the Snowman’s victims, a woman who raises chickens and ends up decapitated after barely two minutes of screen time. Geez, her prop dummy head gets more screen time.
VAL KILMER ALMOST RUINS THE PICTURE
Speaking of glorified cameos that aren't glorious in the least, Val Kilmer has a critical part but it's rendered ludicrous by the performance onscreen. Yes, he's been very ill, and God knows his reputation has suffered from erratic behavior over the years, but if you’re going to cast him as the central figure in a number of important flashbacks, he better deliver a meaningful and cogent performance. At the very least, he shouldn't be allowed to egregiously chew the scenery like he does here. And it sounds like his voice has been dubbed over with a different actor. Could Kilmer not deliver his lines? Were his readings all the more laughable? Whatever it is, when he's on screen, he stops the drama cold.
THE DIALOG COACH MUST HAVE BEEN PART-TIME
Chloe Sevigny and J.K. Simmons speaks with vague Nordic accents, but you’ll barely hear it in the words that Fassbender and Ferguson speak. At least in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, director David Fincher strived to have all his cast attempt a Swedish accent. Such consistency seems to have been lost here. The hodgepodge of different tongues plays as lazy oversight at best and throws off the film’s believability at worst.
THE SERIAL KILLER’S MOTIVES ARE FAKE NEWS
Of course, the serial killer writes notes to taunt Hole. Ever since the Zodiac and the Son of Sam, movies have milked this trope to death. In his prose he teases, “All the clues are there.” No actually, they are not. That sounds good on paper and in the film's marketing (See the poster above.) but it's false advertising. For example, sometimes the killer cuts up the body parts and leaves them laying around like the Ice Truck Killer from the first season of DEXTER. Other times, he forgets to be true to his form. So how exactly is he giving us all the clues? Frankly, the whole Snowman shtick seems utterly contrived, playing more like the conceit of an author who needed a hook rather than a peccadillo of a deranged murderer.
THERE’S REALLY ONLY ONE POSSIBLE KILLER
Starting the film with a long flashback focusing on a horrific event that sets the killer on his path of destruction puts the cart before the horse. Why shut off the possibility that the killer could be a woman? Even worse, it encourages the audience to find the adult actor who most closely resembles the kid they cast. Only one actor fits that bill, and the show is ruined 20 minutes in.
THE DIRECTOR LOSES TRACK OF HIS STORY THREADS
Alfredson is a terrific director, as evidenced by his taut and intelligent LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, so how did he lose control of the ship here? What happened to those 10-15 pages? Why doesn't the editing of the film connect the dots better, especially with as esteemed an editor as Thelma Schoonmaker working on it. And how could Alfredson leave so many plot points dangling?
In one of the worst examples of threads going nowhere, Hole’s apartment is renovated as his home has a mold problem. (It's a metaphor for Hole’s character which plays too on-the-nose by half.) Then, later in the story, it would appear that the killer has snuck into Hole's hovel disguised as a worker. Yet, nothing comes of it. It's never paid off. There are a number of instances like that throughout this misbegotten movie.
Alfredson is a director who creates moody atmospheres and has showcased his great skill with actors, directing Gary Oldman to his first Oscar nomination for TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and getting two of the best performances in the history of horror cinema out of children! His cinematography is always thoughtful, the production design A plus, as is most everything else. So what happened here? Perhaps the DVD extras will explain some of the problems more thoroughly.
THERE’S TOO MUCH MEANINGLESS MINUTIAE
Alfredson does get a lot of inexplicable minutiae into the final film, though most of it makes the audience scratch their heads. For example, why does Stop take a cellphone pic of all his conquests? Or for that matter, why does the police crew assigned to Hole seem so loosey-goosey all the time, to the point where they seem to be treating the investigation as an opportunity to break into dancing in their war room? And why does the first victim turn around and smile at the serial killer when he beans her with a snowball in the parking lot as she's walking to her car? Does she know the man? Shouldn't that be explained? And here's a confounding detail...what in the hell is it with having the killer obsessed with the novelty song “Popcorn” from the 70’s? It plays three times in the film, and for this child of that decade, that is three times too many.
PREDICTABLE, PREDICTABLE, PREDICTABLE
At the end of the day, it's hard for a thriller to keep its audience guessing when the show is all too woefully predictable. For example, Detective Bratt hides in Stop’s hotel room to nab him, or so she thinks, but someone else happens to sneak in the room instead. Gee, do you think it might be the killer? Then, the killer nabs the hero’s ex and doesn't seem true to his M.O. in killing his victims quickly and savagely. Instead, she remains alive, even after he's put a metal cord around her neck to behead her. Is that so the hero will have enough time to save her? Ya' think? And when the hero chases that now reluctant killer out onto an icy lake, do you think the bad guy might hit the spot where it's weakest and fall through into a icy, watery death? If you answered no to any of those questions, you've never seen a movie in your life.
Should a film like THE SNOWMAN warrant this much dissection? Perhaps not, and there are likely worse B movies out there this year, but this film's failings point to how so much gets bungled by time, money, and the decisions by committee in Tinsel Town. What should have been a sure-fire hit turns into very possibly the worst movie of 2017. A movie with this much talent associated with it should not be such a deadly dud. This film forgot to keep its audience emotionally invested, with inspired action, and a genuinely terrifying villain. If a thriller fails to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, folks start looking at their watches. I know I was looking at mine. Mostly, I was clocking how much more screen time Chloe Sevigny's prop head received versus the actual actress.