On the surface The Snowman looks like one of those films that could only be good. With an acclaimed director, a strong cast, interesting source material, and even Martin Scorsese in an executive producer role, what could possibly go wrong?
Based on the novel by Jo Nesbø of the same name, the film follows detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) as he investigates the disappearance of a woman whose scarf is found wrapped around a sinister-looking snowman near her home. He is joined by Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who links the case with a decade’s worth of murders occurring after each snowfall. All the while, the elusive killer continues his homicides, leaving cryptic clues and creepy snowmen behind him.
Before seeing the film I had been really excited by its talented cast and crew, promising trailer, and interesting ad campaign. I had the expectation that The Snowman could be this year’s Zodiac or Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Instead it is one of the most underwhelming films of the year. This is not to say that it is terrible, but that it should be much better.
In theory director Tomas Alfredson should have been perfect for this project. Having previously directed Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy his ability to create tension and suspense should have worked well with this kind of story. In reality the direction for The Snowman is muddled and there is never a real command of style or tone. There are many moments when it feels like Alfredson is merely impersonating the director who made his previous films.
From time to time, such as when Harry finally tracks down the murder, the film comes together and manages to be absorbing and tense almost as a way of proving that it could have worked under different circumstances.
The Snowman has many flaws but it is the script that really lets the film down. There is a real lack of narrative direction and the storytelling comes across as messy and confused. The writers may have been trying to create a sense of the unexpected but instead each turn feels unbelievable and contrived. At the same time it is hard to build suspense when cheesy conversations have the audience sniggering at inappropriate moments. The dialogue is poor and either seems to completely ignore character motives or explain them in an overly simplified manner. Each role is severely unwritten.
The best thrillers have compelling characters that can hold the film together even when there are holes in the story. This was the case with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that managed to remain engaging even when the plot became messy and overly complicated in its final act. There are attempts to create character depth within The Snowman but each one is never properly developed. It takes more than just simply stating that Harry is an alcoholic or mentioning that Katrine is an orphan to make us sympathise with them.
Despite having a number of high profile actors, including; Charlotte Gainsbourg, J. K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, and Toby Jones, the performances are almost uniformly poor. Simmons’ attempt at an English accent – I can only assume that was what he was going for – ranks alongside Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac and Anne Hathaway in One Day as one of the worst accents I have ever heard. Only Michael Fassbender is able to come away with any kind of credit. This is not to say that he is particularly good – there are too many other limitations for that to be the case – but that he at least tries to make the most of the material at hand.
On paper The Snowman should be one of the best films of the year. Instead it is a pale pastiche of what it should be. Tomas Alfredson’s follow up to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of this year’s great disappointments.
In cinemas Friday 13th October.