Before you ask: No, this is not an extremely gritty reboot of Frosty the Snowman. But all things considered, it’s not much better than a gritty reboot of Frosty the Snowman either.

The Snowman is, in fact, an adaptation of a popular Norwegian novel by author Jo Nesbø, though the reasons for its source material’s popularity are difficult to discern from the film version, which is a hackneyed and instantly forgettable detective thriller about a deranged killer who leaves a trail of decapitated women and crude snowmen in his wake. Along the way, he also turns two very good actors into cogs in a rusty machine of torpid plot and gruesome violence.

The actors in question would be Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, who become unlikely partners assigned to the case of the “Snowman Killer.” Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a name that only gets funnier every time a character onscreen says it (and people say it a lot), a detective whose drinking habit destroyed his personal life. Ferguson is Katrine Bratt, a new addition to the local force who studied Harry’s whole career in the academy and considers him a legend. As the film begins, though, lonely, drunken Harry only seems to be good at falling asleep outside in the bitter Norwegian weather.

His life gets renewed focus when a snow-obsessed killer begins murdering women around Oslo while taunting Harry with personalized letters addressed to “Mister Police.” (That’s a pretty silly name for a character, but compared to “Harry Hole,” it might actually be an improvement.) Despite a poster inspired by the killer’s letters that read “You could have saved her, I gave you all the clues,” there aren’t any clues in the movie, and certainly none from the snowman guy. Instead, Mr. Hole follows a trail of very stale breadcrumbs to a similar string of killings years earlier, investigated by another detective (Val Kilmer). And there’s enough circumstantial evidence for Bratt to take a long look at Arve Støp (J.K. Simmons), a wealthy businessman running a campaign to get Oslo chosen as the site of the next Winter Games.


It seems like Støp’s Olympic ambitions should play some sort of crucial role in the story and its resolution; they simply don’t. Several of The Snowman’s subplots are like that. Characters and storylines don’t serve much purpose, perhaps as a result of trimming a 400-page novel down to a 120-minute movie. There’s also a lot of time wasted on an unwieldy crime computer called an “EviSync” that Ferguson lugs around everywhere to take notes, search databases, and record interviews. It’s shaped like a really thick cafeteria tray, and its bulkiness becomes an unintentional punchline when Ferguson tries to “hide” it to “secretly” record a rendezvous with a potential suspect, and she has to clear off an entire bookshelf just to make room for it. Needless to say, her plan doesn’t quite work out as she hoped. (Also: Don’t they have iPads in Norway? Why all the rigmarole about a piece of advanced police technology that seems about 10 years behind consumer tech?)

The whole movie is as clumsy as Ferguson’s dopey cop laptop. That’s particularly surprising since The Snowman was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, one of our greatest living film editors and a longtime collaborator of Martin Scorsese’s. (At one point, Scorsese was supposed to direct this picture; eventually he left the project and Let the Right One In’s Tomas Alfredson took over.) It’s set in a strange part of Norway where half the people talk with stiff English accents and the other half talk with vaguely Scandinavian accents.

The Snowman Killer is one of those ludicrous movie bad guys who is both supernaturally smart and conveniently stupid. He meticulously cleans up his crime scenes to leave no trace of evidence, fooling Hole’s superiors into believing that a few of his crimes are actually suicides — but he’s also dumb enough to leave cigarette butts covered in DNA lying around all of his murder victims. At one point he makes the outline of a snowman (along with twigs for arms!) on the roof of a car without leaving a single track in the fresh snow. Not the hood of the car, mind you; the roof. How did he do that without anyone noticing? And how could he be sure Harry would look out his window at just the right moment and see it?

Fassbender and Ferguson make a striking couple, but the screenplay by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Søren Sveistrup leaves them little room to develop a relationship. (The scene where Hole judo throws Bratt to the floor and then tries to comfort her with a manly hug because of a trauma in her past is ... not good.) Ferguson’s character is built on a flimsy twist, but her backstory is practically The Usual Suspects compared to the ultimate identity of the Snowman.

We live in an era of almost limitless entertainment options. If you want to watch a detective story there are literally dozens you could choose from without leaving your couch, including a few films and television series from Scandinavia. Why, then, watch The Snowman? What separates it from all those other options? Other than a bunch of snowmen, I haven’t a clue.

Additional Thoughts:

-There’s a moment in The Snowman, which I won’t spoil because it comes near the end of the film, that I think only works if Harry Hole is blind.

-At my screening, The Snowman didn’t even look good; the entire film was slathered in a sickly purple tint. It could have been a projection issue; the movie’s trailers don’t look quite so unpleasantly discolored. But the version I saw looked like the cinematographer forgot to white balance the camera.

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