Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman is the first film featured in my Ten Fourth-Quarter 2017 Films to be Excited About! column to be released, alongside A24’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which hits limited release, this weekend, as well. I’ve actually been more excited for the latter – especially after seeing that the reviews for The Snowman were far less enthusiastic than I had been hoping – but it’s not in my area, yet, so The Snowman gets the nod by default. Even with the mixed-negative reviews, I was still intrigued by the trailer and the concept, plus I try to see anything that involves J. K. Simmons, so my choice to catch this film tonight was still a fairly easy one to make.
Throughout its marketing, The Snowman has also been very reminiscent of the amazing Wind River, so I was hoping for a similar moviegoing experience. As I was watching this film, I couldn’t help but think that Alfredson was actually going more for a Silence of the Lambs vibe. Unfortunately for both the filmmakers and audiences, The Snowman doesn’t even begin to converge upon either of those fantastic crime thrillers. Still, rarely is a movie all good or all bad, so allow me to break it down.
The basic premise of the film is fairly simple. Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is investigating a series of murders perpetuated by a serial killer who leaves a snowman as their calling card. The killer taunts Hole along the way, causing the detective to become increasingly determined to catch the criminal and put a stop to the carnage.
I feel like I’ve said this about a number of recent films, but I want to state that I was taken aback by how amazing The Snowman looks. Filmed on location, the beautiful Norwegian landscape provides a much-appreciated change of scenery compared to most major releases. However, in addition to the snow-covered mountains and fields, Alfredson shows off flowing rivers, majestic architecture, and opulent bridges and roadways. In fact, the driving scenes are probably my favorite component of the entire film. When I say that, please understand that I’m talking about ordinary driving scenes, where the characters are simply transporting themselves from one location to the next. These aren’t chases. And they aren’t races. It’s just plain ol’ driving. But thanks to a combination of Norway’s natural beauty, the Norwegian highway engineers, and Alfredson’s eye for framing a shot, these scenes that would typically function as nothing more than establishing devices are dynamic and attention-getting to the point of being downright breathtaking.
Alfredson’s visual style is exceptional, in general. Despite the film’s muted color palette, it never ceases to be a pleasure to look at – but that doesn’t necessarily make it a pleasure to watch. It’s not as bad as that statement makes it sound, but I wasn’t nearly as invested in the film as I wanted to be. While Alfredson’s eye is gifted, his feels for pacing and energy are lacking, and the script did very little to help matters. There are several smaller things that bothered me. For example, Val Kilmer’s ADR (automated dialogue replacement) dubbing both looks and sounds unnatural, leaving me to wonder if he was even doing his own voice. And there are some odd structural choices, here and there, that get in the way of the story’s efforts to organically unfold.
But those types of issues were infrequent enough that they could be largely overlooked. The biggest issue with the film is the characters. Perhaps this isn’t a problem in Jo Nesbø’s novel but, in the film, there isn’t an interesting, charismatic, or entertaining character to be found. The cast is certainly capable, but they can only do so much when the director prefers to keep the tone subdued and the script provides dialogue that is bland and unremarkable in every way. This would be a problem in any film but, in a horror/crime film, it’s especially problematic. If the audience has no connection and/or feels no empathy for any of the characters, then there are no narrative stakes. It doesn’t matter who dies. It doesn’t matter why. And it doesn’t even matter who the killer is. There are a couple of scenes that provide a little jolt of electricity to the proceedings but, as soon as the viewer feels as if their pulse might finally elevate, the moment is cut off at the knees and the film is back to uneventful conversation. To compound the issue, the film does a lot of telling instead of showing (perhaps the biggest and most common filmmaking sin), which is simply madness when the filmmakers struggle to tell the audience anything in any sort of engaging manner.
So, overall, The Snowman is a huge disappointment, in my eyes. What could and should have been a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat thriller was instead a plodding two hours spent with people who are about as interesting as your neighbor’s cousin’s vacation photos. Unlike many others, I was equally bored by Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so I’m not altogether shocked by what the film has turned out to be. But my hopes were high, anyway, due to some terrific marketing. I would love to see some of the visuals from the film, again, because they really are dazzling. But those visuals are wasted on an otherwise undeserving and lifeless movie.
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