The Snowman (2017)
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan
Starring: Chloë Sevigny, J.K. Simmons, Michael Fassbender, Michael Yates, Rebecca Ferguson, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Dead women beneath a blanket of white, plus cloak and dagger intrigue – it can only be Nordic Noire. Although this Scandinavian subgenre has graced our TV screens for a while now, it’s yet to convincingly make the leap to the big screen. Enter director Tomas Alfredson. Having turned the snow red in Let The Right One In, then dabbled with mystery in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he combines the two with an adaptation of the seventh Harry Hole novel.
For those that have never heard of the franchise, think Holmes without the light heartedness. Here the legendary, but constantly drunk detective Harry (Fassbender) is in a rut. You’ll know the cause by now – the usual sleuth things i.e. addiction, and a complex relationship with ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourg), who just got a new man, and his surrogate son Oleg (Yates). So waking up after one too many hangovers, and nights spent outdoors, he needs a new case to keep himself sane. Luckily for him there’s a murderer on the loose, leaving bodies and lots of snowmen in their tracks. Paired up with new recruit Katrine (Ferguson), who’s keen to get involved, he pursues a possible serial killer. The hunt will take him round the country, to mysterious shacks in the middle of nowhere, and into decade old, unresolved, murders dating from the years’ first snowfall.
So yes, expect lots of the white stuff. It falls regularly in the background and covers the cobbled roads along with the dynamic hills. The atmosphere is brilliantly realised from the grim opening, which sees a dysfunctional family fight and establishes some motifs. The mood is frequently melancholic, with a real sense of coldness in the air and permeating the stunted interactions between people. A few odd moments of well-judged comedy aside, this is a film unafraid to linger on scenic and spiritual emptiness. The framing is wonderful, juxtaposing the vastness of the natural world with the loneliness and insignificance of those in it. Namely a series of grade-A actors, who seem to occupy a predominantly English suburb.
Having recently done blockbusters, with Alien Covenant, Assassin’s Creed and X-Men Apocalypse, I was surprised to see Fassbender doing something as small scale as this moody mystery. Yet with him being the exact meeting point between art and mainstream, it was about time he did something more intimate. As per usual, he delivers the goods – with his performance as the flawed Harry not being too sentimental or melodramatic – he isn’t portrayed as a hero. And with every longing glance he gives at whoever is in the distance, he expresses a sense of isolation that matches the location. Leading ladies Gainsbourg and Ferguson both do well with what they have, even if it’s not much for the latter, and elsewhere Toby Young, JK Simmons and Val Kilmer deliver the goods in all too modest roles.
You see, while the scale of this movie is small, there’s a lot going on – at least at face value. There are a fair amount of characters across multiple timelines in two cities. More pressingly, there’s a heck of a lot of brooding and bouts of long silence between austere dialogue. As such, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion The Snowman would have worked better as a miniseries – with a longer format giving side characters room to develop. It would also allow the mystery itself to be more engaging. While Hole’s personal life adds dramatic weight to the film, and ties into the third act nicely, the mystery itself is fairly shallow. Even the big reveals later on, which could have worked on the page or the small screen, will pass over you and make you ask ‘was that it?’ It’s not that the way everything fits together is necessarily obvious. It’s just not especially remarkable either, with little time for psychological or plot depth.
Maybe we’ll see more of Harry Hole in future – I know I would go. Yet I’d expect this is more about wanting to spend more time in Oslo than in his company. To be fair, everything in this works, and on a technical level it’s far beyond your average detective film. But as a genre it’s more of a writer’s medium, and sadly The Snowman lacks the pace or novelty to be especially entertaining and the profundity to be especially enlightening.