I don’t know what it means that the two most disorienting movies I’ve seen in 2017 both costar Michael Fassbender and Val Kilmer. But the one designed as a slick, commercial thriller is actually weirder than the one directed by Terrence Malick.
When I say that The Snowman is weird, it’s not because its plot is about a psychopath whose signature move after carving up his victims is to put on his mittens and make like this song from Frozen. The titular killer’s habit of building Calvin and Hobbes–style snowmen at the scenes of his crimes — pretty easy to do on a daily basis in Oslo — is just a gimmick, like the Zodiac Killer’s letters to the editor, or the way Buffalo Bill shoves bugs down people’s throats in The Silence of the Lambs.
It’s a lot like Buffalo Bill, actually: The Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, who has now written 11 books about the brilliant, dogged Oslo-based detective Harry Hole (not as many as Jack Reacher, but getting there) is very much a student of the Thomas Harris School of dramaturgy, mixing process, protocol, and pathology and combining aspects of true-crime nonfiction and Gothic horror into an irresistibly prurient package. The film adaptation of his 2008 novel Headhunters was turned into one of the most popular movies in Norwegian history.
No, The Snowman is weird — crazily, zanily, at times almost unbelievably, hallucinatorily weird — because of how it’s been made. Or rather, because of how it betrays the strain of its making at all times. Some movies hide their scars well; this one is basically this scene from Jaws. You’d expect a glossy thriller with an A-list cast produced by Martin Scorsese to glide into theaters with a lot of hype, but Universal is rolling out The Snowman without a lot of advance press screenings and underneath an ill-advised poster campaign that has already spawned dozens of sarcastic Twitter memes. For instance, it’s been pointed out by nearly everyone I know that the handwriting on the poster resembles the scrawled font on the front of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape, which features the line “my heart is cold / it’s probably because I’m from the snow / with all my woes.” The 6 Man is the Snowman. He gave us all the clues!
The Snowman’s shame-faced release strategy is doubly unsettling because of who directed it. Anybody who has seen Let the Right One In or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy knows that Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is a gifted genre specialist with the ability to conjure up brutal, lyrical imagery and guide talented actors through rich, complicated roles. He is part of a group of promising, distinctive, international filmmakers who’ve been hired onto American projects, alongside Bong Joon-ho or Ben Wheatley (who also had Martin Scorsese onboard for Free Fire).
The frosty tone and backdrop of The Snowman would seem to be a good fit for Alfredson’s skill set — there’s plenty of swirling, photogenic snow in both Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor — and yet even before the film has come out, the director is trying to distance himself from it as bluntly as possible. He told IndieWire that 10 to 15 percent of the screenplay wasn’t filmed due to a rushed production schedule, and that by the time he got into the editing room, “a lot was missing” — not what you want to hear about a film that already runs two hours.
I will just come out and say it: The Snowman appears to have been edited in the dark with a rusty melon baller. Or with two rusty melon ballers, as the credits list Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker as separate editors — as opposed to coeditors — a distinction that hints at the chaos of the film’s postproduction. Both women are Academy Award winners. Simpson cut Platoon, and Schoonmaker assembled Raging Bull (which was voted the best-edited film of all time in 2012 by the Motion Picture Editors Guild). The rumor is that Schoonmaker was brought on by Scorsese — with whom she’s been working for the better part of 50 years — to do a pass on Simpson’s original.
With all due respect to the woman who cut the greatest extended montage I’ve ever seen, the finished product here suggests either that the lack of usable footage was worse than even Alfredson is admitting or that Schoonmaker was trying (for whatever reason) to turn a salvage job into an avant-garde art project. The pace of the editing is such that it’s as if the shots are trying to avoid each other at all costs. At times, they rush by like they need to be anywhere other than onscreen. That sort of visionary, slipstream rhythm works great in an art-horror classic like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which is all about cause-and-effect relationships and the splintering psychology of its characters, but The Snowman is not that sort of movie. This is the sort of movie where the hero is a handsome alcoholic cop trying to sober up and solve a series of grisly slayings; where his partner is a pretty, brilliant young investigator with skeletons in her own closet; and where characters regularly wander into dark, abandoned buildings housing carefully stage-managed corpses.
In short, it’s trash, and the best trash is typically the kind where the style clinically and efficiently serves the story. David Fincher is the patron saint of this sort of thing. The storytelling in The Snowman is the cinematic equivalent of listening to somebody trying to remember the plot of a paperback they read in an airport 10 years ago. It’s like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo done as an episode of Drunk History. There are two timelines in the film. One is set in the present and involves Michael Fassbender’s teetotaling Harry Hole skulking through Oslo in search of the monster leaving him little handwritten notes at the scenes of crimes. The other is framed as “nine years earlier” and features Val Kilmer as a similarly addled detective investigating similar (identical?) murders.
The Kilmer stuff is absolutely baffling on its own terms — even more so than his cameo in Song to Song — starting with the fact that the actor’s voice has clearly been over-dubbed. But it’s the jarring, graceless way that the film flips between the time periods — not differentiating between them at all in terms of clothing, décor, or atmosphere — that makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. There’s no connective tissue in the script — an overhead shot of a dead woman’s body severed into pieces lying at the edge of a cliff is emblematic of how broken the dramatic and narrative logic is at all times. One subplot involves noted Norwegian Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as a businessman trying to bring a big sporting event to Oslo, which involves throwing lavish, creepy, Eyes Wide Shut–style parties at big mansions. He’s clearly a bad guy who does bad things, but the film completely forgets about him three-quarters of the way through. (At least Kilmer gets a proper send-off, and a pretty unforgettably gory one at that.)
As for Fassbender, it’s easy to criticize him for picking a bad script, as he’s done several times in the last few years. But as it’s also apparent that the screenplay he read isn’t the one that got made, it’s equally difficult to hold him responsible. Like a lot of his U.K. peers (Tom Hardy and Christian Bale, for example), Fassbender’s defining trait is a willingness to go all the way with roles instead of holding anything in reserve. The easy charm he showed way back in Inglourious Basterds has been supplanted by manic intensity, whether he’s playing Macbeth or Magneto. This pummelling approach to his craft is probably why Fassbender is so fond of working with Steve McQueen, who has cultivated the star’s energetic masochism in three consecutive acclaimed movies, culminating in the Oscar-nominated histrionics of 12 Years a Slave (the sort of performance that you have to nominate for an Oscar, as there’s nothing else to do with it). Because Fassbender has nothing to play in this movie, he ends up projecting only vague annoyance, as if he were a helpless bystander in his own star vehicle. His embarrassment is the one thing in The Snowman that makes any sense — it gives us all the clues we need about a movie that is its own bloody crime scene.